It never ends on Duffy’s Creek. I will but it doesn’t. There’s always something going on around this little crossroads of Man and Nature. The tidal flow is always moving even when it seems still. Things are always changing. Nothing is static. So whether by way of a permanent relocation to Trisha’s Mountain or by way of my untimely death, I’m forced to accept the fact that The Creek will go on without me someday.
I’ve seen lots of places and people go on without me before, so I know it’ll be fine. And if I make it out of Valley Stream alive and spend the rest of my days on Trisha’s Mountain, so will I.
Still. It’s a bitter pill.
None of us is terribly important to the place around us, but we’re all terribly important to the place around us.
So even if it isn’t true, part of me truly believes this place will go to hell without me.
Case in point, if I hadn’t gotten back from my last stretch of time up on Trisha’s Mountain when I did, and if I hadn’t been sitting on the couch near the window, and if I hadn’t jumped into action when I heard the commotion, a duck may well have been viciously murdered in cold blood in South Valley Stream.
And it wouldn’t have been the first.
Early in our almost twenty year run here, back before we replaced the rotting deck with the wobbly patio, I woke one morning to the grisly discovery of a decapitated green mallard head under the steps of the deck.
It was clear that the neighborhood stray cats had formed their own La Cosa Nostra, and they were warning me to stay out of their business.
But those ducks are my ducks, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some furry thugs attack them. Or other ducks, for that matter. Currently there is a feral domestic duck, a compatriot of the idiot whose feathery ass would have been cat food without my intervention, a freak of nature whom we refer to as “Three Mile Island”, who has run every good, law-abiding mallard off the creek, and I’ve put him on notice for his churlish insolence.
This aggression will not stand, Duck.
Because I’m personally responsible for every one of God’s creatures that lives in and over my creek; the ducks, the swans, the geese, the pipers, the plovers, the yellowlegs, the gulls, the terns, the kingfishers, the cormorants, the swallows, the herons, the egrets (I have a few), the hawks, the ospreys, even the turtles and the peeping frogs and the muskrats and the bats and the little killies we used to catch in milk bottles tied to strings and the weird fish that come here to commit suicide every May.
Oh yeah, and the Bald Eagle.
All of them. My creek, my responsibility.
But wait, you say: Didn’t you and Mrs. Duffy buy a house and a couple of acres up in the country? Weren’t you the guy who was going on and on in the introduction to this book (it’s a book?) about the 2% ratio of unrepentant assholes to the general population of the region surrounding your creek? Getting all snarky about the crumbling quality of life on Long Island? Rhapsodizing about how life got so much more pleasant north of the Red Rooster as you drove up Route 22? All giddy about the bluebirds on the rail trail and the rainbow crosswalks in Great Barrington? Aren’t you planning on making that drive north in Lou the Subaru one way someday, possibly with a confused old dog and three pissed off old cats? Isn’t the plan to leave Duffy’s Creek behind forever?
Yeah, that was me. And, yeah, that’s still the plan.
But not today.
As much as we’re drawn to the pull of the Mountain, and upstate in general, the thought of giving up The Creek kills us. Trisha has said, more than once, “I wish we could just take this creek and the gardens with us and leave the rest of Valley Stream.”
I like that she says things like that out loud.
Mind you, it’s the noise and the trash and the traffic and the taxes that would ultimately push us out. But, in the ultimate irony, even though it’s people who create the problems, 98% of the folks that I encounter down in the Valley are delightfully entertaining, most of the time unintentionally. Trisha and I enjoy critiquing their various walking styles as we watch them on the public path along the Left Bank.
There’s just too many. And as much room as we have on The Mountain, there’s just no place to put a creek. Besides, you’d have to take Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, otherwise you’d have no water.
The other problem is the creek doesn’t belong to us. We have a deed on a cornfield in Copake Falls, but we don’t own the creek.
But then again, I sort of do.
And I know my wife and my son and my brothers and my sisters and my dead parents and my neighbors and even my dog wouldn’t mind me saying this:
If it belongs to anyone, It belongs to me.
To prove this assertion, it’s necessary for this narrative to become, as the most famous writer I ever bumped into on the street famously said, “unstuck in time.”
I’m five years old, and I’ve discovered that you can walk behind twelve 60-foot-wide backyards and get to our backyard directly from behind the Sportsman’s Rendezvous Bar up on Mill Road. Blazing a little trail, pretending like I’m an Indian, innocently oblivious to the fact that the phrase “pretending like I’m an Indian” is highly offensive, I’m starting to notice the tides and the plants and the birds. Even my little pre-school mind’s eye can see that I live in a uniquely cool place compared to other neighborhoods around us. And my life here was born of dumb luck. My mother told my father that the only way she was moving from Astoria to Long Island was if they could buy a house on the water. I could have easily ended up on a canal in Freeport, but a family by the name of Taylor that bought a brand-new house on a creek in South Valley Stream in 1950 suddenly decided it was too small in 1954, just as my parents were diving into the market.
On my trail, I discover a sign, a road sign, except it’s on my creek, so it’s really a creek sign, a sign that years later I would regret not stealing. The sign is posted behind Mr. O’Neill’s backyard, warning boaters that exceeding 5 mph is a violation of a Nassau County Ordinance. A duplicate sign was attached to the footbridge over the creek, four backyards down from ours.
Way back then, you could still get under the bridge at Rosedale Road and get all the way out to the Jamaica Bay from our backyard, a fact that my father used as the launching point of a terrifying made-up bedtime story designed to keep us from taking the aluminum rowboat out for a spin when he wasn’t around. Every once in a while people would cruise up the creek and pass by the backyard in motorboats, grinning and waving at us. To my little six-year-old boy perspective, they looked like they were having the time of their lives.
I know my drunken high school friends were having the time of their lives when I said, “Sure! Go ahead! Take the boat out!” as I was hosting a giant party in the backyard during the summer between 11th and 12thgrade, as my poor parents relaxed obliviously up in the Adirondacks. My charming young peers decided to throw beer bottles into the backyard of a girl who lived down the creek on Brook Road, a sweetheart who never did anything to deserve either that or dying in the World Trade Center 31 Septembers later. My boating friends happily directed the responding policemen to the backyard party, where we all got off with a warning because we were all white kids, and it was the end of their shift.
When Jack and I take the kayaks out on the creek, people on the path and in the backyards have been known to whip out their phones and start filming us like we’re famous or like something important is happening. That’s how rare a boat on the creek is now. Being a teenager, this pisses him off no end. Being the old man who owns the creek, I’m delighted and amused.
Unstuck again. I’m ten years old and the creek is frozen solid in wintertime, a condition that rarely happens anymore. When the tide goes in and out, it leaves sheets of ice along the banks, which are fun to jump up and down on and break like panes of glass. Ace the Fat Beagle and I go walking out on the ice, sliding our way down towards that pedestrian bridge, the spot that launched the dependency years of every stoner and alcoholic to emerge from Valley Stream South High School (the place that Trisha and I now refer to as “Big Brick”).
Years later, the bridge would be removed in the Mid-Aughts after a young would-be entrepreneur tried to charge kids a toll to get over it, which turned out to be not such a great business plan, as one of those kids stabbed him. After that, Big Brick and the Town of Hempstead closed the path at the end of the street and knocked the bridge down.
But on that day in the Ice Age that was the 1970’s, it’s just an innocent boy and his fat dog with a whole frozen creek to themselves, happily walking on the ice. His parents, who probably should have discouraged this, have broken out the camera to preserve the moment forever, capturing a piece of their youngest child’s soul before he evolves from a cheerful little fellow into a snarly asshole teenager.
I’m in 8th grade, 1977, a snarly asshole teenager amid a circle of straggly white kids surrounded in a cloud of smoke along the path to the bridge on a warm summer evening. A kid on the outside of the circle sees my parents coming, enjoying an evening walk around the creek with Ace the Fat Beagle, heading for the bridge.
He announces: “Duffy! I swear to God your parents are coming! And they’ve got the dog!”
It’s bad enough they have to walk by a bunch of kids smoking weed, some of whom they surely recognize. I don’t have to be there. Not when I can vault over the fence behind the house of a neighbor who used to babysit me and take my Indian Trail behind four backyards back to temporary safety.
The danger having passed, I walk up the hill to the summer recreation program around the gym at Big Brick to find my scraggly peers. I thank the kid who tipped me off profusely, then I ask him with my best shit-eating grin what exactly he thought the dog was going to do to me.
Meanwhile, you’d have thought I would have learned to stay out of that spot after that same neighbor had already ratted me for out smoking behind her backyard. It was never anything personal, of course. She was just doing her job as a neighbor. It’s what you’re supposed to do if you see your neighbor’s kid smoking behind your house. And bless her soul, she was my neighbor long enough to meet the baby I pushed in the stroller past the same spot 30 years later. When they removed the bridge and closed the path, she and the other neighbors who put up with the local punks all those years no doubt saw an exponential improvement in their quality of life.
When Trisha and I bought the house, the guy who lived directly across the creek from us, who we’d often hear calling his dog Sam to “get over here!” and who thereby became known as “Sam’s Man”, was apparently either oblivious to or unconcerned by the fact that the humongous oak tree on the path next to his house was a popular meeting spot among the local kids, who made the mistake of getting too loud and picking a fight with a surviving veteran of Valley Stream delinquency. After my letter to the Hempstead Town Supervisor explaining the political risks of putting one’s name on a sign advertising one’s involvement in the “Mill Brook Park” that was choked with weeds and garbage and after-dark loiterers, the warning signs went up and the police patrols started.
After Sam’s Man sold his house, the man who became known to us as “I’m Not Happy” (after I heard him utter those very words -plus one modifier for “happy”– while screaming at a cell phone) moved in with his big dogs and his deafening power tools and his big flood lights. And it only took the worst natural disaster in its history for the Town of Hempstead to turn the “Mill Brook Park” into a lovely and wildly popular little walking path, the virtues of which were extolled by a local hack in a guest Newsday column, a place where Trisha and I figure we have about a 10-15% chance of witnessing an intentional or unintentional crime someday from the comfort of our backyard while we’re critiquing the walkers.
Unstuck again: I’m a 10th grade prisoner of Big Brick and its 9’o’clock on a school night. I’m staring into the bathroom mirror at one of the thousands of zits that has emerged on my face, maybe this time right square on the nose, maybe hanging off my bottom lip like sad clown makeup. The world will end before 4th period tomorrow because I have to walk around Big Brick looking like this.
Out the open bathroom window in the cool spring darkness, this is what I hear:
“HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!”
Yes, it’s a mallard somewhere out in the night laughing at me. I was mocked mercilessly by ducks all throughout my childhood. After a while, I had no choice but to laugh at myself, and we’ve been laughing together, the mallards and me, for a good, long time.
Now I’m in my twenties, stumbling my way through college and every other damn thing, living mostly off the grace of my parents, who had long gotten rid of all their other children. They had a big dining room table next to the picture window looking out at the creek, where they’d sit in the bathrobes on Sunday mornings and spread the Sunday New York Times on every available surface. It’s winter, and my parents want to know once and for all who those little diving ducks with the spiky black and white heads are, and so do I, Chan the Houseboy, who was probably out at some Saturday Night Hellhole until 4 a.m. and is just rolling foggily out of bed at 10 or 11.
We dig up a field guide and we learn all about hooded mergansers, who have come to our creek for the winter. Who knows? Maybe they flew here from Lake Kushaqua in the Adirondacks. It’s possible. Doesn’t matter. On that quiet Sunday morning, Francis and Joan and I have a common purpose: Finding out what duck that is. It’s a nice, quiet little moment between the three of us in the midst of way too many noisy moments, and I feel like we’re starting to become friends, and the hierarchy is disappearing.
And if you’re wondering why my parents never noticed the hooded mergansers on their creek every winter until they were retired, you never raised five kids on civil service salaries.
Unstuck again. I’m in my thirties, and I’ve just recently met the woman I’m going to marry. A pretty bit of luck, that. It’s a Saturday afternoon in November, and we’re hanging out in my little bird’s nest apartment overlooking a six-lane highway in Lynbrook. I suggest heading over to Ancona Pizza on Rockaway Avenue in the Valley. Then, since I ended up meeting her parents on our second date (if one doesn’t count stalking her at the Island Park Train Station between the first two dates) I say, “let’s go over and meet my parents.”
And we do. We have a delightful little visit, and everyone likes everyone else. Trisha and I go out into the backyard. It’s dark and you can’t see the creek, but you can sense its presence. We both know three things at that moment: 1) These nice old people we just ate pizza with are selling this house and moving out east 2) We have fallen silly in love and will be together forever. 3) Even in the dark, this house and this yard look like they’ve seen better days.
While things are working themselves out, we do a little house shopping around Valley Stream and Lynbrook. We tour a horrible old house where we had to debate whether to call social services after we left, and several nice houses with teeny-tiny little postage stamp backyards and the house in back on the next street staring down on them in a constant surveillance operation, just like all my friends had in their backyards while I had a creek.
Two years and a month later, December 1, 2001, my parents have left the creek. Mom was not in fact dragged kicking and screaming as she declared she would be. She was making the best of it, not yet sick enough that she couldn’t hold court with new friends at the Jefferson’s Ferry Lifecare Community, where all the old stories could be rebooted.
Trisha and I are raking. She starts putting the leaves and yard debris into garbage bags. I say, “you don’t have to do that! Just throw it all down by the creek!” She looks at me like I’m crazy, one of thousands of times. It occurs to me that we have purchased waterfront property and there’s so much crap piled up and growing wild behind it that one can’t really see the water.
The following summer, I rent a dumpster with money we don’t have and pull 50 years of scrub and thug vines out of earth that we don’t actually own, on the strip of land between the backyard and the creek that actually belongs to Nassau County, like they give a shit. Howard the Rock and Roll Tree Guy comes around with mighty trucks and implements of destruction and cuts down all the dangerously dying trees that my dear parents ignored. Keeping one corner for what we rationalized would be a compost pile, but which has since just become a mountain of crap, I use the logs from the cut trees, wire fencing from the Home Depot and many, many cubic yards of dirt delivered from 1-800-TOP SOIL, carted via wheelbarrow from a giant pile in the driveway, to create a bulkhead, which I then separate at the property line with a retro post and rail fence so I can lean on it like a cowboy. I stock the bulkhead, which I dub “The Wetlands”, with native shrubs and the Famous Leaning Cedar Tree (which didn’t wash away in a hundred-year hurricane ten years later because my brother remembered all the boy scout knots I could never be bothered learning and he saved it by lashing it to the post and rail fence after it was half-uprooted).
And thus began the Duffy’s Creek Bird Sanctuary, registered with the National Wildlife Federation in 2002 with the little metal signs and a certificate to prove it. And thus began twenty years and counting of being the warden, keeping it clean on my patch.
Unstuck in time again. I’ve reached my forties, set free to celebrate my inner nerd like nobody’s watching by the love and understanding of a beautiful wife. I have way too many bird feeders with way too much bird seed set up around the yard, and my work as a bird influencer has attracted over a hundred mallard followers, and likely a few rats. Among the mallards are always a group of larger, feral domestic ducks, most often white but sometimes looking like mallards that had been swimming around Three Mile Island when it melted down, hence the name of our current Problem Duck.
I had heard the white ones called farm geese or pekin ducks. In the awful, racist communities of South Shore Long Island, of which Valley Stream was most certainly one in the 60’s and 70’s but maybe a little less so now while others got worse, it was supposed by some, by way of a bad joke, that these farm geese or pekin ducks were on the menu at local Chinese Restaurants. Plus, the ducks were tamer than mallards, so along my creek, people let them wander around their backyards and fed them and gave them cute names.
People say and do all sorts of dumb shit, even relatively smart ones.
Two of my neighbors, one from Berkeley, California and the other from Hong Kong, were concerned because two of the farm geese or pekin ducks that they had grown attached to had moved across Mill Road to the Pond, and the spillway would prevent the ducks from getting back. So they decided to go rescue them. When relating the story to me, my neighbor from Hong Kong told me that he was well aware of the optics of a Chinese man running across Mill Road carrying a duck with a pillowcase over its head.
By the way, I’m pretty sure those two Farm Geese or Pekin Ducks flew right back to the pond. Thinking like a duck in that situation, I imagine I know why. Because fuck you, that’s why.
One day in that same era, a wood duck showed up for lunch with the mallards. Wood ducks are one of the most beautiful creatures in the whole wide world. @ me. This encounter leads me to purchase a wood duck house and a ten-foot wooden poll and install it at low tide because I’d seen little wood ducks diving out of nests in trees on PBS Nature and I thought I could get in on that. I never saw another wood duck, and it was probably a year later when I removed what had in essence become a squirrel house and piled it with the garbage on the side of the shed.
I like to think all of us learn and grow from these experiences. The beginning of my forties also coincided with my becoming a father, which thankfully left less time to plan dumbass ideas like installing a wood duck house.
It’s July, when they set teachers free. After a morning walk, I’ve parked my perfect sleeping baby boy in his stroller in a shady corner of the yard and pulled up a camp chair to sit next to him. In front of us are the red-twig dogwood and rosa rugosa shrubs I planted just a few years before, now the best little café in town for a pair of catbirds, my favorite songbirds. In a cloudless blue sky are terns taking turns gliding up and down the creek, hovering above us before diving spectacularly straight down to pick off some fishy lunch.
My son Jack has picked up some things from me besides cursing and surliness. He knows those birds now, too. All the cool ones. The kingfisher that rattles as he dives from branches over the creek. The little sandpipers and plovers that pick at the mud at low tide. The egrets and herons that seem to know just how cool they are. The day somebody dumped a domestic Toulouse Goose in our driveway, I suppose thinking that the poor thing would just make its way back to the creek and live happily ever after, Jack was instrumental in helping me to corral it into a pen until the two most cheerful people I’ve ever met in my life came to rescue it and send it to a farm in Pennsylvania.
Through the efforts of folks like these, I’ve learned that these domestic ducks really should be removed and relocated if possible. After exchanging a few messages with cheerful wildlife rescue experts about our Problem Duck, I’m told that they are waiting for someplace to put he and his co-conspirators, and not to worry, “your ducks are on my list.”
You’ve got a Hall and Oates song playing in your head right now, don’t you. It’s all good.
Actually, several factors besides the psychotic radioactive outlaw duck have combined to drive the mallards to breed elsewhere. Chief among them is that the reconstructed “Mill Brook Park” actually took out a whole lot of nesting sites among the phragmites, which we know by the name my father gave them: Woozy-woozies. Woozy-woozies are invasive, and the new plants along the path are all native. But try telling that to the mallards. They seem to have all said screw this place and flown down to North Woodmere park to find a decent place to lay some eggs. If we get two mating pairs of mallards in a summer now, it’s a lot.
There used to be hundreds of mallards on the creek in the winter, now at most there are dozens. In the early spring, you could observe the mallard mating ritual almost every day. This is when the male circles the female repeatedly while bopping his head up and down ridiculously until he gets the OK to climb on top of her. I used to see this a lot at the clubs back in the 80’s, too. Usually Depeche Mode would be playing.
By early summer, there’d be lots of mallard babies. Of course, ducks have lots of ducklings because many ducklings become lunch for hawks and snapping turtles and don’t get to grow up to have ducklings of their own. Circle of Life and all that. But I always got too emotionally involved with the whole thing. Counting four of them on a Tuesday after counting six on Monday was always kind of a buzzkill. Still, there’s nothing goddamn cuter than a duckling.
We still get the hooded mergansers every winter, and they always make me happy. If we ever needed a Duffy’s Creek logo, it would be a hooded merganser. Just ‘cause they’re so damn cool. But we used to get a lot more winter ducks before we screwed up the climate; common mergansers, northern pintails, redheads, common goldeneye, green-winged teal. In the first weeks 2004, while we were waiting for a baby to be born, the whole Northeast was locked in a bone-chilling, sub-zero cold. Trisha and I were at the picture window picking off new ducks every weekend. This past winter, we had a pair of buffleheads in for a few weeks. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw them, but it was sure great having them here.
Then there’s the mysterious ruddy duck. I thought he had finally found himself a girlfriend last winter when I saw a pair for the first time. But then a second male showed up, making three ruddy ducks. I figure one would have to become the third wheel in mating season. I remember that shit. But my ruddy duck always seemed to be living his best life regardless, often spending the whole summer here by himself, living among the mallards like he was in some sort of duck witness protection program.
I can tell you that the oldest ruddy duck on record was 13 years and seven months old and my ruddy duck has been hanging around here for at least ten years. He’s not here this summer either because he finally went under the Rainbow Bridge or because Three Mile Island ran him off. But that’s part of the wonder of the creek. I might look out the back window tomorrow morning and see my ruddy duck swimming and diving around like he never left.
Besides the Hoodies, one other bunch of regulars still come around, the northern shovelers that look like mallards with big beaks. They don’t laugh like mallards. They have tiny little quacks, if they speak at all while they’re here. They hang out with the mallards and the freak feral ducks, but they don’t get involved in their drama. They always look like they’re consciously trying to mind their own business. They float and they dive around on my creek for the winter, then they fly back to Ontario and Quebec, and they don’t need to explain anything to anyone.
Nor do Henry and Henrietta, who also have to take some of the blame for the missing mallards, but they clearly don’t give a fuck about ducks. Technically, they are the great-great-great grandchildren of Henry and Henrietta. Those are the names that my mom gave to the mute swan pair that showed up on her creek one spring. Watching swans gliding down a creek while you sit in an Adirondack chair in your backyard is one of those experiences that led my father to say that living on Duffy’s Creek “was like being on vacation every day.”
If Mom knew that mute swans were bullies that push other species out of habitat, it wouldn’t have mattered because Henry and Henrietta were beautiful. And so are their ancestors who still grace our creek. I give them credit for running off the Canada Geese that took over for a couple of years. They were terrible neighbors, almost as bad as the people from Suffolk County who used to live next door. The swans don’t chase every mallard off the creek like Three Mile Island has been doing, but they kept a lot of real estate for themselves when they were breeding.
This year, the swans are just hanging out. No nest, no cygnets wearing trumpets and blackboards around the neck or otherwise. The State DEC has been at war with mute swans for years, so maybe they were sterilized somehow or had their eggs addled, although you can’t miss a swan’s nest and there isn’t one this year. So even though its clearly psychological projection, I think it’s more likely that they are past their breeding years and just enjoying the creek.
Traveling unstuck through years of waking up at quarter to five and slogging west on the Belt Parkway, Ol’ Man Creek, he just kept rolling along. Whenever I could, I’d sit there and watch him flow, no matter what got in the way and which way the wind did blow. He scared the hell out of us in Hurricane Sandy and he grosses us out when algae blooms and droughts make him look and sometimes smell like an open sewer, but mostly he’s been a benevolent neighbor and friend, rising and falling with the tide, reflecting I’m Not Happy’s klieg lights at night, forever wild as the rest Valley Stream groaned under the weight of civilization.
Although I currently have a first world problem regarding kayaks and the current condition of the water. The algae and the various unidentified crap floating about has been particularly bad this spring, despite the hack who told you in Newsday last fall that the water was getting cleaner since the path was renovated. Not quite yet and maybe not in my time, although it just smells like the creek and nothing worse. But I generally don’t feel great about paddling a boat in any water I’m not theoretically prepared to fall into, longshot though that is.
My father contracted polio in the late 1950’s. He was probably saved by Jonas Salk’s vaccine. He theorized that he might have contracted the disease from swimming in the creek when he first bought the house in 1955. A local fellow used to swim in the creek all the time when I was a kid in the 70’s. As far as I know he lived and thrived and took showers. One way or another, it’s not a particularly dazzling experience to paddle a sit-in kayak through dirty water, although as the creek winds its way through backyards southwest of Big Brick, it is sort of like paddling through the bayou, except with people pointing cell phones at you.
Meanwhile up north, there’s at least five beautiful lakes and ponds within a half hour of Trisha’s Mountain, two of which are New York State Parks that have boat rentals, but our boats are much nicer than theirs. With the exception of Hempstead Lake, where one can enjoy a stunning view of road rage incidents on the Southern State Parkway, the best paddling spots on Long Island are all an hour or more away in Suffolk County. Yes, Nassau County is surrounded by water, and yes we have paddled the South Shore Bays without incident, but the currents and the wind can get a little wacky on the open water. And when we’re out there, I spend a lot of crucial brain cells wondering where the hell people got the money for these houses and dreading a Long Island encounter with an unrepentant asshole on a jet ski.
I like mountain lakes. Ponds, too. Preferably with no motors allowed.
So, you say, why don’t you just take the kayaks with you when you go upstate? Well, The last time the kayaks went north on the top of Lou the Subaru was when the transmission exploded on the Adirondack Northway. (You can scare Trisha just by saying “Queensbury!”). And while I don’t believe that this will happen again, the day when I haul the boats up through the wind tunnel of Interstate 684 and up Route 22 to The Mountain will be the end of having kayaks on Duffy’s Creek, ‘cause once I get them up there, they ain’t coming back. Currently I’m on pace to spend about 82% of this calendar year on Long Island, which statistically means more days when all the stars line up with the wind and the tide and we can bring the boats somewhere. Meanwhile, people at the State Parks are very nice even if their boats are not so much.
Again, this is all a first world problem so embarrassingly pretentious that I have no choice but to laugh at myself, just like the mallards taught me. But still. It would be nice if I didn’t have to think twice about paddling on my own creek, and nicer still if Nassau County hadn’t blocked me from another couple of miles of paddling through Hook Creek towards the bay.
Then again, I also have to drive my Labrador Retriever 118 miles to get in a decent swim, and in between trips, he sits and stares at water that may as well be molten lava for all the good it does him.
Yes, Duffy’s Creek is truly a wonderland of flora and fauna. But for our purposes, it’s become mostly decorative.
I’ve returned to the present tense. I’m pushing sixty. I’m in week four of a longer than usual six-week Creek stretch before my next ten days up on The Mountain. Despite my advancing age, I’ve spent lots of my bottomless pot of free time out in the hot sun whipping the gardens into shape, cleaning and polishing two expensive kayaks that haven’t touched a body of water yet this year, painting a bench blue because I felt like it, training the Mandevilla to crawl up the giant decorative metal sun that I bought on Amazon to replace the smaller one that got old and broken, proudly admiring my purchase of a wonderful bit of kitsch that can be seen from the path on the Left Bank, and possibly from space.
I’m sitting on the patio with Trisha and It’s a nice night to be here. “It just could not be better,” as Bob Murphy would say of a good night for a ballgame at Shea. The ferocious, ozone-laden heat of the day is abating. We wouldn’t be able to escape it even if we were on The Mountain. My rectangle tells me that it’s just as hot if not hotter up there. And as my father pointed out to me, the Atlantic breezes reach South Valley Stream about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. They never reach Copake Falls.
The sun is setting, and while The Show is limited by our sea-level elevation and all the houses in the way, the sky is turning all sorts of deep funky purples and oranges and reds. The crazy perennials in the patio garden haven’t reached six feet high yet, so we’re still watching our fellow Streamers on the path over in “Mill Brook Park”, keeping a running commentary on their gaits and their wardrobe choices.
Just like that, a bald eagle glides low along the creek right in front of us. More than likely the same bald eagle that Jack caught a picture of when he visited us the day before the last Presidential Inauguration. He (or she) is an absolutely majestic creature, and even though we worry that a bald eagle might steal territory from our old and dear friends the ospreys, there’s no denying the jaw-dropping beauty of those huge prehistoric wings silhouetted black against the setting sun.
Yup. My father would have told you that living on The Creek is like being on vacation every day. That’s a good line, and tough to beat. But in that moment, as a bald eagle cruises by like he owns the place and we both realize what we’ve just seen, I say something to Trisha that we’ve said to each other hundreds of times since we first read it to our son in a book by the weird and wonderful Margaret Wise Brown (of Goodnight Moon fame) called Sneakers the Seaside Cat. The story is about a cat that gets to spend a day exploring at the beach. Every time Sneakers sees something cool, she thinks a thought that I’ve thought tens of thousands of times while looking out on the creek, MY creek, where things are always changing with or without me.
And I say this thought out loud to Trisha right before she would have likely said it to me. It’s the same thought that will sustain us both on the day when we’re dragged away, not kicking and screaming, ‘cause we have somewhere really nice to go to.
And it’s even the same thought I had right smack today in the here and now, when Trisha called me out from the air conditioning this afternoon to see a flock of thirty terns circling overhead, no doubt the distant relatives of those terns I watched while our perfect baby boy slept in his stroller, as all thoughts and all moments exist simultaneously.
Sneakers the Seaside Cat thought to herself, “my, I’m glad I saw that!”
I was a student in the Valley Stream Public Schools for 13 years. The single best thing they ever did for me was when they took me off Long Island for a week and showed me an Upstate New York winter.
It was the traditional trip to the Ashokan Center, the one my son didn’t get to take because the tradition ended sometime between my time in the Valley Stream schools and his time 41 years later. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say the lawyers and insurance consultants got involved. But in February of 1975, way back before they ruined everything, two schools worth of sixth graders were loaded on tour buses and transported to a big camp near the Ashokan Reservoir in Olivebridge, NY, smack in the middle of the Catskill Mountains and smack in the middle of winter.
I was thinking about this trip when I was acclimating to the weather earlier this month up on Trisha’s Mountain. Embracing the cold, as my Buddhist friend likes to say. And Buddha, it was cold. The temperature only got above 30 degrees twice in 11 days, and then only briefly. It snowed on five of the days, and there was already two feet of snow on the ground when we got there. This of course didn’t stop Mookie from dragging me to the top of the backyard hill to sniff up every animal track immediately upon our arrival, which I expected. But he did keep looking back at me as if to ask why I, as God, had made this snow so deep and difficult for his little English Labrador Retriever legs to walk through.
Meanwhile, there were two things I remember from that 6th grade Ashokan trip.
One was the sheer exhilaration of flying through the air on a toboggan down a preposterously steep hill and whipping out across the frozen Esopus Creek, which is, coincidentally, the very same creek I was looking down on from a steep hill when I met Mookie in his breeder’s kitchen in nearby Saugerties 36 years later.
That toboggan ride is one of the single favorite memories of my life, and I always thought it was interesting that Lois Lowery chose sledding down a hill as Jonas’ first transmitted memory of the real life he was missing out on in the novel The Giver, a book I read with a lot of kids that never got to ride a toboggan down a hill and across a frozen creek and likely never would. I fully endorsed the experience, though, if they ever did happen to get the chance.
It was wild. When you hit the bottom of the hill, it was like being in a Hot Wheels car going through the speed booster, except you were propelled straight out across the ice instead of around the loop-de-loop. And don’t think that I don’t think of this image every Christmas Eve when George Bailey has to save his kid brother Harry. I’m gonna go out on a limb again here and say that the lawyers and the insurance consultants used that particular activity as Exhibit A when they finally put the kibosh on the sixth-grade trip.
The other thing I remember was winter.
I wanted to see if I could fill in some blanks about Ashokan, so I cast a net on Facebook and asked people who shared this experience what they remembered, and about 10 of them responded, God bless them.
Apparently I made a broom and a candle holder when I was there, and possibly a fire poker. I would have made a little man out of pewter, but somebody’s husband had broken the machine years earlier. I thought I had put on snowshoes for the first time in my life up on Trisha’s Mountain, but I’m told that my first snowshoe hike was 46 years earlier than that. Who knew.
One friend of mine, who went on to be a star pitcher on the Valley Stream South Falcons varsity baseball team, bravely recalled for us the memory of being such a homesick little wuss for the first two days of the trip that he required a full-scale intervention. As for myself, except for not wanting to poop in a public bathroom for the first two days, I don’t remember being homesick, but I probably missed TV, and Ace the beagle.
Another friend checked in, a guy I’ve known since kindergarten. In the interest of sharing the little details of life’s rich pageant that never cease to amuse and astound, I must tell you that this particular friend of mine happens to be a world-famous strongman who’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for rolling 14 frying pans into burritos with his bare hands in under a minute.
I pulled a couple of muscles in my ribcage opening the garage door last week. At the time, I thought my lung may have collapsed.
Not only did my old friend, a sweet, good-natured family man who is known in strongman competition circles as “The Crusher”, remember that the guys who set the toboggans up were named Kevin and Doug, and that another counselor named Andy challenged all comers to ice skating races, he was also able to pull up all the amazing pictures you see in this post in less time than I could have found last year’s tax returns.
The first pictures he posted were of us and our classmates, which were fun to see. Then he told me he had some other pictures, but they were of scenery rather than people. I asked him to send those pictures, too, and he did. You’d think I would have remembered that there were farm animals at the Ashokan Center, or that one of the counselors looked suspiciously like Richard Manuel of The Band, who had a place near the Ashokan Reservoir at the time.
What I did remember clearly as soon as I saw the pictures was the landscape, and the rickety old buildings dotting the snow and the bare trees stretched out across that landscape. Poking around the Ashokan Center website today, it looks like most of those buildings have been torn down and replaced. My broom and my fire poker are long gone, physically and in my memory, but the images of the countryside in winter that my friend probably took to finish up a roll of Kodak Instamatic film before we got on the bus back home are a direct match of the images in my mind’s eye.
I was eleven years old, and I was instantly charmed by winter in Upstate New York.
Now you can plainly see from the picture at the top of the post that my parents did not cheat when it came to keeping us dressed for the weather. That coat was as warm as a womb. There was an entire sheep sewed into that lining. And only fools go upstate in February without a good wooly hat and gloves. The picture doesn’t show them, but I’m sure I was wearing the sturdiest pair of boys’ brown leather waterproof hiking boots that JC Penney had on display that November. And I’m sure I had on a pair of long johns, which I still wear in the winter, as I’m still what my students in Rockaway amicably described as “one bony-assed motherf@#$er.”
It snows on Long Island, of course. Sometimes a lot. And the wind howls and the temperatures drop. And when it’s just a little too warm for snow, cold rain will come along and prick you with a million little needles. But in winter, it’s always just a smidge or so warmer in Valley Stream than it is in Copake Falls. The cold rain on Long Island is often snow in the Taconic-Berkshires. But the difference in what winter actually feels like in one place as compared to the other seems like more than a smidge, which we can define here as bigger than a tinge but smaller than a whit.
It feels like a different climate entirely.
To see if there were any scientific data to back this up, I learned all about the Koppen Climate Classification System, something I’m positive that I was not taught in school, but I don’t remember making the broom, either.
According to several sources, none of them Wikipedia, Duffy’s Creek is in a Cfa, a warm oceanic climate, also called a humid subtropical climate. Trisha’s Mountain is in a Dfb, a warm summer humid continental climate. Some maps put all of Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley in a Dfa, which is a hot summer continental climate. I can tell you that summers have been getting progressively hotter for twenty years in Copake Falls, which not only sucks, but would also suggest it’s probably well on its way to being classified as a Dfa climate. But the climate around New York City, which has always mostly sucked, is forever at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean, so Cfa would be the more accurate classification.
The difference between these climate classifications comes down to the number of days of sustained cold temperatures. It’s slightly colder upstate. There I proved it. Thank you Herr Koppen.
But there’s way more to it than that.
I have no scientific proof of this, and I’m too lazy to find any, but there are more days of stillness in upstate winter, more days when the wind isn’t blowing at all. While we get less snow and less deep cold on Long Island, it seems like the wind rarely takes a day off, and it accompanies every snow and rain event just to add to the misery.
Up in the country, you can catch a stretch of days where even if it’s only 10 to 15 degrees in the afternoon, there’s no wind at all. When you put that together with a light falling snow or some blue sky, some clean, fresh mountain air and a foot or two of snowpack to muffle all the noise except for that satisfying crunch under your boots, you got yourself some magic weather.
On the first morning of our February vacation on the mountain, my rectangle informed me that Mookie and I would be greeted outside by six degrees Fahrenheit with a 10-15 mph wind, making the “real feel” (what your daddy called the wind chill) a robustly negative seven degrees. The sun thermometer on the back porch, which is more form than function, announced a Good Morning Copake Falls temperature of zero degrees. But while it stayed cold, the wind calmed down after the first couple of days, which was a beautiful thing, as Trisha’s Mountain has its own little microclimate, and in the warm months we suddenly get attacked by swirling 20 mph winds for no apparent reason. When it stops, its absence creates a loud silence.
And since Mookie was working so hard to trudge up the hill through the snowpack in the yard and back down the hill through the adjacent cornfield, we did a lot of our walking along on the blessedly level Harlem Valley Rail Trail, where the snow had been already been snowshoed, cross-country skied and otherwise tamped down a bit.
But even with all this evidence of human activity, a lot of time we had the whole thing to ourselves, which was both incredibly peaceful and a little bit frightening. First off, there was a lot of poop along the trail, and I know the good citizens of the Roe Jan Valley overwhelmingly clean up after their dogs, so it could have been anybody’s poop. It occurred to me that a couple of hungry bad ass coyotes or mountain lions could be somewhere up there in the woods, with one saying, “I’ll take the one with the fur, you take the tall duck.”
And if we were a good ways up the trail and one of us suddenly pulled a hamstring or were otherwise unable to walk, the other would be pretty screwed. One scenario would involve a panicking, breathless 130 lb. man carrying a wriggling, confused 102 lb. dog and the other would be an equally confused dog searching frantically for someone with thumbs who can drive an Outback.
Plus of course, severe cold weather can kill you. There’s an extra risk in traveling in winter, as your troubles would be significantly more complex if you found yourself suddenly not traveling. And once you get where you’re going, there are also power outages to consider, which is why in a future chapter we’ll learn all about Generac.
Add in the risk being further away from places you might need to get to in a hurry, hospitals in particular, through potentially pitch-dark, black-iced roads, and you could see why, just out of curiosity, I visited the website of an assisted living community across the border in Lenox, Mass.
This was actually when I was in the kitchen on the mountain, warming up from the second time that day I had swept the snow off the entire driveway. In comparison to some of our fabulously wealthy neighbors with mile-long driveways further up the mountains on Breezy Hill Road, our driveway is nothing fancy. But it’s still over a hundred feet, mostly uphill. One of our neighbors owns a landscaping and plowing business and we’re all very happy that we met each other. But he only plows and sands the driveway if there’s more than three inches of accumulation. Not being a full-fledged country guy yet, I don’t have a snow blower, which meant that the “nuisance snow” (a term I learned from Albany TV News), which fell for four days in a row, had to be either shoveled or swept, then sanded by hand before it turned the driveway into an Olympic ski jump.
To paraphrase Steven Wright, it’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to sweep it.
When you sign up for upstate, winter owns you for four or five months out of every twelve. My darling wife, raised in a culture where people roasted in the sun on Point Lookout Beach four or five months a year, jokes that she has no idea what she was thinking.
But we both know. For every challenge that upstate winter presents in a place with fewer people and more hills, it more than rewards the survivors by enveloping them in its charms, its peace, its oxygen and its stunning natural beauty. Crunching through the snow along the Rail Trail, my mind was clear and easy enough to float me all the way back to that week in Ashokan, when I first experienced a wide open, heaven-sized country landscape under a quiet falling snow, and a clear and silent 15-degree blue sky morning amid rolling hills lit up with twinkling crystals.
Yes it can be bleak. Lots of cloudy days to get through. One of the first things I noticed at the house on Trisha’s Mountain this month was that, since we haven’t gotten up to putting color on the walls yet, both the inside and outside color palette was an endless loop of brown and white, broken up only by rows of red-twig dogwood on the tree farm and a few big evergreen trees visible from the windows. But winter never lasts forever, and that bleakness is what makes the greens and the yellows truly beautiful when they show up in April.
All the houses in Copake Falls, and all through the Dfb climate, look very serious about their jobs in the winter. And you can see houses that you can’t ordinarily see though the leaf cover. I can’t describe light through leafless trees in winter any better than Warren Zevon did when he said it looked like “crucified thieves”, so I won’t even attempt it.
The houses are working very hard to keep their owners warm. No lace curtains billowing in the windows and no whirligigs spinning on the front lawn. This is crunch time. Sometimes when I see or smell the fires from the chimneys of these hundred-and-fifty-year-old houses, I think of the people who settled places like this, who couldn’t crank the thermostat up, and for whom a fireplace could be the difference between life and death.
But despite the lurking dangers of winter, Mookie and I got to live our best life out there in the sharp and cold, here and now air, crunching through the snow along the Rail Trail. If it’s peace and quiet and a Zen feeling of no time and no self that you’re after, a trail through upstate winter woods is the place to be, particularly if you don’t have to get to a job.
On one of those clear mornings, we literally walked into a flock of bluebirds. At least twenty of them, dancing and singing through the trees on either side of us. This moment now lives alongside others in my life where I witnessed something so beautiful that I said to God, out loud, smiling, “you gotta be kidding me, man!”
Though God has a sense of humor, when it comes to nature’s wonders, he’s dead ass. He arranged for a flock of bluebirds to come along and flitter through the trees that morning because he really thought that Mookie and I should see them, just like he arranged for a sunset to bathe the stalks of last years’ corn and the sweep of snow down the hill in an ethereal orange glow as my son and I snowshoed across the field late that afternoon. All we had to do was dress for it, and there it was.
When people tell you not to waste your life away, they’ll sometimes tell you that we only get so many summers. Make hay while the sun shines and all that. Conversely, we only get so many winters. And because we needed all the oil and the plastic, winters are not what they were in 1975. I’d likely meet the bottom of the Esopus Creek if I took that toboggan ride today, and I’d need the Crusher to pull me out.
So while it is a great time to enjoy the couch, catch up on books or naps or watch a little basketball, you’ve got to get out there and embrace the winter while it’s here, lean into its big shoulders, draw in its icy breath and let it embrace you back.
The day before we rolled down the sandy driveway on Trisha’s Mountain and back down to Duffy’s Creek, we got two inches of fresh snow upstate. But it was one of those occasional storms where Long Island gets a few more inches than Copake Falls. That snow stuck around for a few days, then started melting into patches. When the last patch started melting in the backyard on the creek, Mookie made sure to roll on his side and make a dog angel, and I made sure to crunch through it with my brown waterproof boots.
It’s a long, hot summer, and we just needed a little more of that real feel before winter got away.
When I started writing this “e-book” series of blog posts, in August 2020, I was shooting for what’s called “evergreen content,” meaning that the months and years in which the chapters were written wouldn’t really factor into the subjects of said chapters, which are, to date:
An insider’s guide to New York Route 22
Watching the sun set over the Roe Jan Valley
The path along Duffy’s Creek
The Harlem Valley Rail Trail
Vermin, sprit animals and motherf#$%ing snakes
Christmas trees and mulch
A big rock with a view and a famously deadly waterfall.
Despite these very general and innocuous topics, the damn Pandemic kept sneaking into the narrative.
Yes, the original premise was a guy from Valley Stream, Long Island who had just retired from twenty-five years of teaching and bought a second house in Upstate Copake Falls with his wife because they loved the area, thus becoming human wishbones. But I thought that it wouldn’t matter what particular month or year any of this took place, as long as the setting alternated from one chapter to the next.
But it’s become clear that the Pandemic of 2020-2021 makes “evergreen content” not only impossible right now, but pretty much pointless. This is a time in history that no one alive has seen the likes of, and no matter what (or where) the subject is, it can’t not go through that filter.
So, if you’re an historian who has happened to have come across any of these first nine chapters in the year 2121, you would realize that the guy who wrote them was ultimately just trying to stay alive until the coast was clear.
He drove from Nassau County to Columbia County and back again. He hunted, foraged and gathered at nearby grocery and hardware stores in both places for food and supplies. He walked his dog; he took naps with his cats; he did some writing for Pay Pal peanuts; he read books and magazines, he watched TV, he played some guitar, and he did a lot of crossword puzzles.
As the cold, dark and dreary winter of ’20-21 wore on, he spent most of his time confined to one or the other home and, while the company was always swell, he became increasingly bored and restless as a result. At the same time, he considered himself very, very, very lucky and he tried not to complain.
Nonetheless, person of the future, I have included the following memo, just for you:
To: Mr. or Ms. Historian
Re: The Pandemic of ‘20-21
However, here in February of 2021, despite the disturbing, more contagious and more deadly variants of the Covid-19 virus that keep popping up (how nice), it seems like we’re actually seeing a dim light at the end of this hellish tunnel, though try telling that to a half a million or so dead people, including my father, or the other people who lost family members, or jobs, or homes, or the businesses into which they had thrown their souls.
Still, we can now safely say that the President of the United States is not actively trying to infect and kill its citizenry. Imagine that. Plus, we survived an attack on the Temple of Democracy by ten thousand of most disgusting and ignorant people in the world, stirred into a twisted, violent rage by that same, now ex-President’s Big Lie about the election in which, by the grace of God and Stacey Abrams, he got his ass kicked to the goddamn curb and he knows it.
Their insurrection failed, mostly because once they breached the Capitol, these overwhelmingly deluded and dimwitted organisms were too busy posing for selfies to get around to murdering the Vice President, the Speaker of The House or any democrat they could get their hands on. It was the series finale of the four-year, reality TV nightmare that they inflicted on the rest of us, solely to punish us for electing a black guy twice, and for suggesting that maybe they were the damn problem.
But we survived, and the miserable failed Hitler who tried to kill us all has been as muted as he gets for the time being. Now that we’re back to living in actual reality, we have a real President and a functioning federal government again. Imagine that. More people are being vaccinated than are getting sick, and there are vaccines on the way by July for everybody with the sense to get one.
Plus, we’re past Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the Super Bowl, so all the unrepentant assholes who just HAD to get together and spread deadly germs in small spaces don’t have any excuses to cough on each other and thereby kill your grandmother for at least the next couple of months.
So things are looking up.
But it’s still necessary to quarantine as much as possible. And it’s still winter. In fact, this has been as close to a good, old-fashioned, pre-climate-change winter as we’ve had in a lot of years. Lots of cold, lots of snow. And by the grace of God and my immigrant grandparents, I live in New York, so I can find ways to enjoy the cold and the snow then come back inside to a warm house, unlike the millions of people in Texas who suffered miserably in the cold this month because the elected officials who are supposed to protect them let their power grid and their water supply freeze up.
Forgive the digression, but it seems that we can determine from this evidence that the average squirrel has more intelligence, more moral fiber, and certainly more empathy than the people who run Texas. Say what you like about the people who run New York. They know not to get caught unprepared for winter weather. Nobody forgets that shit.
Of course, even if this were in a non-Pandemic winter, there would be fewer things to do and fewer places to go, because, well, it’s winter. But in the alternative reality of a non-Pandemic winter, some of my favorite troubadours might have come to places a short car or train ride away from Valley Stream to sing for me, and I would have been able to accommodate them, even on a weeknight and even on a pension. And there would be museums and diners and libraries and movie theaters for the occasional change of scenery.
The troubadours are all home streaming on Instagram, and while there are theoretically places to go for that change of scenery, I haven’t died from coronavirus yet, and I don’t want to, nor do I want to experience any of the long-term effects that survivors are going through, so I’m not going anywhere I don’t have to go until they get to the 55-65 group and I can make an appointment at the CVS as easily as when I got my flu shot, even if that means five or six more months of semi-hermitage.
For now, everybody who was working at the King Kullen supermarket, the Pets Supplies Plus and the Raindew Variety Store a year ago is still alive and working there today, and we all wear our masks, and nobody hugs anybody. During the Valley Stream weeks, I go to these places, I get what I need, I go home, I stare out the window and I wait for spring.
But I do love winter weather. As a matter of fact, I love all weather. Every season has its unique charms, and to embrace each one of them when they arrive is among the great privileges of being alive. I wouldn’t live anywhere else but the Northeast for that reason. I’ve never been to Florida, have never had any burning desire to go to Florida, and I sure as hell am not going there any time soon. Apologies to my Floridian friends, but to me, living in a place without true seasonal extremes is, how shall I say, wack.
Admittedly, as someone with very little natural insulation, I sure didn’t enjoy waking up at 4:45 am to commute to work in winter weather, though it did get the initial shock of cold over with every day. Now I have to rely on my personal trainer to get me out under the sky and moving every morning. He does this by lying on the floor and staring at me forlornly until I put on my boots and my big coat, which is a really effective strategy if you’re thinking about starting a personal training business, but you’d have to be a Labrador retriever.
We go for walks, we enjoy the weather, then we come back inside so the one of us who isn’t covered in thick fur and blubber can warm up for a while. But as I enjoy my first extended winter vacation since I was four years old, there’s just isn’t much to report on from Long Island. Any “evergreen content” I could come up with involves places I can’t justify going to or people I can’t justify seeing.
So this chapter is about basketball.
And since it all starts with reading the morning Long Island Newsday, it counts as a Valley Stream chapter.
It all started on the morning after Christmas Day on Duffy’s Creek. I was flipping through the paper and Mookie was getting his leg scratched. Upon reaching the sports pages, and since I didn’t have to be anywhere fast, I read an article about the Brooklyn Nets.
Now, I flip through every single page of the newspaper every single day in Valley Stream. When I’m upstate, I substitute the Berkshire Eagle and the Register Star, so if you want to know about the new restaurant in Pittsfield, Mass or what people are upset about in Hudson, I’m your man. This obsessive-compulsive disorder of mine also allows me to always know who’s winning and who’s losing among the New York Sports teams, who they’re big stars are and how much money they’re making.
I’m a baseball guy. I’ve been a baseball guy since Mrs. Milne brought the TV on the cart into our first-grade classroom so we could all watch the Mets play the Orioles in the 1969 World Series. I went home that October afternoon to check if the Mets were on my TV, and sure enough they were, and they’ve been there ever since. Thirty-one years after that, I set my personal record by being at Shea Stadium twenty-five times to root on the 2000 Mets, including three playoff games and the last game of the World Series against the Yankees, which was the last professional baseball game played in the 20th Century.
I’ll take it one step further. I’m one of those nauseatingly sentimental baseball guys. The ones that get all blubbery watching “Field of Dreams” and have the Ken Burns documentary on DVD. At our wedding, Trisha and I gave out autographed baseballs as table gifts, and we had a friend bring along his catcher’s mask and glove so my best man could throw out the first pitch to him.
I named my dog Mookie, then I stood on a line in a sporting goods store to show Mookie Wilson himself a picture of my dog.
So being a baseball snob, I was conditioned to believe that every other sport was inferior. Football, soccer, basketball and hockey were categorized together in my narrow little brain as “the back-and-forth games.” They were faster than baseball, as is your average sloth, but all they essentially did was go back and forth.
I pretended to like football from high school and into my twenties because nearly every single person I hung out with was a football fan. That’s not an exaggeration, and I’m not sure how that happened. I never really had a favorite team, and I don’t watch it anymore. I think it would be better if they just played flag football instead of trying to pulverize each other, but I digress again.
Way back when, I taught English as a Second Language to rich kids from all over the world who were pretending to go to school so they could get visas and hang out in New York. They, and my brother-in-law, who was born in Chile, taught me to appreciate World Cup Soccer, particularly in 1998, when France beat Brazil in the finals. Again, like football, I could sort of see what the fuss was all about, but it didn’t light my soul the way a base hit up the middle with two out in the ninth does.
Then I started teaching in Queens. There were plenty of good baseball fans among the kids, and more and more soccer fans as immigration increased (not to mention cricket). But “ball” in the city is basketball, and to hundreds of the junior high school kids that I crossed paths with, basketball was a serious a matter as the heart attack I would’ve suffered if I’d played them one-on-one.
When sizing me up, shortly after demanding to know my age, hometown, marital and housing status, they’d ask me, “you got game?”. And I, at 5’9’’ and 120lbs. at the time, would smile and reply matter-of-factly, “no, I suck.” Then they might ask me who my favorite NBA team was, and I’d have to tell them delicately that I was a baseball fan and didn’t really follow basketball, and they’d look at me sort of the way you’d look at somebody who says, “I really don’t think Tom Hanks is that good an actor.”
In my first year of teaching in Rockaway, I was asked to referee the faculty-student basketball game. To this day, I have to rely on the refs to tell me when I’ve seen a personal foul on a basketball court. But I was going to do it, because first-year teachers don’t say no. Thankfully, my assistant principal, who like me majored in Mets baseball but unlike me had a minor in NBA studies, took over and bailed me out. If I had refereed that game, knives would have been drawn before halftime.
Nevertheless, for the benefit of having something else to talk about with the kids when it wasn’t baseball season, I always knew what was going on. I knew who all the NBA stars were in the 90’s and the 00’s: Jordan and Pippin on the Bulls, Hakim Olajuwon on the Rockets, Shaq on the Lakers, Patrick Ewing on the Knicks, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, etc. etc. I’d know who was in the playoffs and occasionally watch the games. And I could always tell the kiddies that I watched the great Knicks teams of my childhood, because I did: Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Walt Frazier and Phil Jackson. Ask your grandparents, kids. Those guys could have made a basketball fan out of a duck.
Jason Kidd was the biggest star for the New Jersey Nets when I was a young teacher. The Nets had a couple of good seasons around that time, but they were usually overshadowed by the Ewing and the Knicks and their annoying courtside celebrities at the Garden.
But I already had a soft spot for the Nets because I had actually seen them play a couple of times when they were the Long Island ABA team, with Julius Erving (Dr. J.), his cool afro and the red, white and blue ABA basketballs. The first time was at the Island Garden, right next store to the place where we’d get our Christmas trees in West Hempstead. Once in a while, my father, never a sports guy, would get free tickets to see the Nets when they moved to the brand-new Nassau Coliseum, and we’d go so my mom wouldn’t be able to tell him that he never did anything besides yell at me.
New York basketball in the late ‘00’s and early ‘10’s was mostly average if not outright bad, so not even the kids at school weren’t talking about the Knicks or the Nets. By this time of course, they all had iPhones and Xboxes and Play Stations, so most of them spent their free time out in an alternative-reality ether, which I couldn’t even begin to relate to. But I did think it was pretty cool when the New Jersey Nets became the Brooklyn Nets and chose black, white and grey as the team colors. Snazzy-looking uniforms if you ask me.
And in my last couple of years in Ozone Park, a new assistant principal came in and put together a team that no middle school in Queens could beat. One of the best students in my Year 25 classes was the star, well on his way to 7 feet tall, the dean’s list of whatever college he goes to and maybe the NBA draft. You couldn’t help but soak up a little basketball appreciation working at MS 202, and maybe part of the reason I’m watching it now is that I miss that city vibe, painful as it is for me to admit.
Fast forward back to where we were sixteen paragraphs ago: Not going to the city, sitting on the couch, flipping through the Newsday and scratching the dog on the morning after Christmas. From the article about Brooklyn Nets, I found out that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who had both signed with the Nets after winning championships with other teams, were playing together for the first time, and that they had won their first two games of the 20-21 season with neither the Warriors nor the Celtics putting up much of a fight. They had a former great player as a first-year coach (Steve Nash, whom my wife calls “the stern fellow”) and the buzz was that this could be their year.
So being trapped at home by a Pandemic, I decided to watch the next game, on a Sunday night against the Charlotte Hornets. I saw one of the Nets’ best players, Spencer Dimwitty, suffer a nasty season-ending knee injury, then I saw those Nets still standing come roaring back from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter, only to lose by two points, 106-104.
Trisha, who justifiably had to break my chops for sitting on the couch watching a back-and-forth game, said, “Wow! This is just like the Mets!”
But it was fun watching another live competition on TV again besides Jeopardy. (It was enough that we’re still grieving Alex Trebeck). So I watched the game after that. And they lost again, in overtime. Nether Durant nor Irving was playing, so I got to know some of the other guys. You can’t help but notice D’Andre Jordan, who is 6’8” with shoulders big enough to tattoo entire verses of scripture on them and a more impressive ponytail than my wife’s. I quickly adopted him as my favorite.
And though I’m already sick of the broadcast team on the Yes Network, they did teach me some of the better nicknames: Joe Harris, who seems to never miss a three-point shot, is “Joey Buckets.” Jeff Green, 34 years old and playing in his 13th season, is “Uncle Jeff.” Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is “TLC”, ‘cause how the hell could you say all that when you’re calling basketball play-by-play? I give Ian Eagle, the voice of the Nets, credit for calling TLC’s baskets “French Dips” and “French Connections”, but other than that, the broadcasters all giggle too damn much and between them and the pathetic fake crowd noises I’m muting the TV more and more every game.
As my first weeks of being the accidental basketball fan unfolded, Durant and Irving were back on the floor together for a game against the Washington Wizards in which they both missed shots with seconds to play and lost by one point, 123-122.
Just like the Mets.
But I started to see what makes these guys special. “KD” is 6’10’’ and moves like a man who has oil flowing through his veins instead of blood. “Kai” is 6’2’’, and one of the most gifted natural athletes I’ve ever seen playing anything. He reminds me of the last line of the song, “The Cape” by Guy Clark: “He did not know he could not fly, so he did.”
And because I flip through every page of the newspaper every day, I knew about some things in the first week of January. I knew that there was this player out in Houston, James Harden, who was unhappy with the direction of his team and wanted to be traded to the Nets so he could play with Durant and Irving. But Durant was ineligible to play for a week because he’d been exposed to Covid-19 and Irving was taking some time off, which everyone said was directly related to the Capitol Insurrection.
So I find a happy little pastime to take my mind off all the misery and keep me entertained through the winter, and the misery kicks the door in and trashes the room. But I kept watching anyway, as I had nothing else to do.
Irving never directly said that he didn’t want to play because he was upset about the Insurrection, but that’s what was widely assumed. It didn’t help that he got also caught breaking covid protocols to go to his niece’s birthday party. There were a lot of big mouths on Twitter questioning his commitment to the game and his inner fortitude.
Here are some things I’ve learned about Kyrie Irving: His mother was Sioux, and he supports the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota in their fight against the Dakota Pipeline, which has earned him the Sioux name “Little Mountain.” He burns sage before games. When the WNBA players opted not to play last year out of covid concerns, he donated $1.5 million towards covering their salaries. He gave $300,000 to Feeding America and helped launch Share A Meal, a NYC charity that has delivered 250,000 meals during the Pandemic. He’s trying to eat a plant-based diet and he had to apologize for punking the press into believing he was a flat-earther, which is funny as hell.
And I’ll tell you what: If I were an African American professional athlete in this country, I would think that it’s a constant moral dilemma knowing that, at the same time at which I’m serving as a hero and a role model to kids who badly need one, I’m also providing entertainment for rednecks married to karens who pull their kids in close if they see a guy who looks like me coming up the street and yahoos who tried to destroy the country because my people outvoted their people. That wouldn’t be an easy thing for me to reconcile. The same guy who tried to kill a policeman with the pole of an American flag on the steps of the Capitol probably had shit to say about Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem. I wouldn’t want these unrepentant assholes rooting for me to throw a ball through a hoop, either.
So I’ll appreciate the joy of watching the joy that Kyrie Irving gets out of playing basketball at a level that few mortals can, and as far as I’m concerned, he can take the day off anytime he needs to.
Meanwhile, in Kyrie’s absence during the first weeks of January, KD was trying to carry the team, but they were treading water. I continued to get to know the other guys, including Landry Shamet, to whom I like to yell, “Dammit, Shamet!” when he misses, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I also came to appreciate Travis Allen, a young center with afro that would stop Dr J. in his tracks, and Caris LaVert, sort of a Kyrie-Lite, but very talented.
Then I met The Beard.
Brooklyn made a big trade on January 12, giving up Allen and LaVert and all their draft picks for the next hundred years to get James Harden. The only thing I knew about him was that he looked like the guy you want to be around when the party gets going. The bubbleheads on TV and the articles in the Newsday were all speculating as to how an elite, MVP player who led the league in scoring three times would get used to sharing the ball. Harden replied that he just wanted to win a championship, which is the only thing he hadn’t accomplished.
It was an interesting subplot. I kept watching the games.
You might know this already: The man is a magician, a grand imperial wizard of basketball. He passes the ball behind his back and over his shoulder without looking, he passes under other guys’ legs, he passes across court through a crowd of large, sweaty men to put it right into the unguarded hands of Joey Buckets for the three, or up over the basket where DeAndre Jordan brings it home with a pony-tail flyin’, bible-thumpin’ slam dunk. He hits field goals and free throws like my dog marks telephone poles and I pour cups of coffee and he regularly tricks his opponents into fouling him when he drives into the paint.
Watching Harden, Durant and Irving come together, I finally “got” basketball on the same level I’ve always understood baseball. A baseball game is a Beethoven Symphony. There are slow, quiet movements where you’re drawn into a particular instrument, but you know if you follow along, they’ll be great bursts of joyous noise that will lift your soul and set your spirit free, or sometimes make you weep.
Basketball is jazz.
Forgive me for just figuring this out at 57. I was busy learning other stuff.
A quick Google search credits this idea to a joke by Michael Scott on “The Office”, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wynton Marsalis were both on it before that. Marsalis said that both basketball and jazz “reward improvisation and split-second decision making against the pressure of time.”
To say that two basketball teams are just going back and forth is to say that a jazz ensemble is just playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” over and over again. One of the things I love about baseball is the endless possibilities. As the great Mets’ announcer Bob Murphy would say, every time you come to the ballpark, there’s a chance that you’ll see something you’ve never seen before. You could subsequently say that about every time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hands. But I never realized until watching the Brooklyn Nets this year that basketball is also full of endless possibilities, every time the shot clock starts.
My Netsies went on a tear through the Western Conference this month, winning five games straight on the road against some of the best teams in the league. The last game of the road trip was tied with two minutes left and ended with Harden throwing himself into Paul George of the Clippers to force him into an offensive foul, thus taking two points off the board and getting two free throws, of which he hit both, after somehow missing two other free throws just minutes earlier, plus a shot by Irving that would have bounced off the rim if DeAndre Jordan hadn’t reached up like he was touching the hand of God to guide the ball through the hoop.
Nets 112- Clippers 108. A half-game behind Philadelphia for first place with 20 wins and ten losses. If you’re thinking about jumping on the bandwagon, I was the last one on the back, so I’ll help you up.
One of my favorite bands is The Band. There were five guys, each an exceptional player on one or more instruments. There are hardly any solos in The Band’s songs. But each musician is aware of what the others are doing, and they seamlessly create space for all the sounds to come through individually at the same time you that hear them in harmony.
All these years, I had no idea they were playing basketball.
In baseball news, the Mets are loaded with talent and personality this year, and their new owner is a nerdy hedge-fund guy with wads of money who wants desperately for everyone to like him.
In basketball news, there will be 300 masked, socially-distanced fans at the Barclays Center tonight when the Nets play the Sacramento Kings, the first time spectators have been present in a year. When the Pandemic is over, I’ll be a half-hour train ride away, at least part of the time. Maybe a way to get that change of scenery next February.
It appears that I’ve become a basketball fan. People can evolve. While the Boys of Summer are doing their stretches down in spring training, and President Biden is shoveling us out from four years of the toxic, deadly incompetence and corruption that at times felt like a blizzard that would bury us alive, I’m enjoying the happy, swashbuckling exploits of Brooklyn’s Boys of Winter.
Trisha always knows what night there’s a game on. When Jeopardy ends, I walk out to the kitchen to heat up a cup, and on the way, I yell out, “BROOKLANNN!!!”
I also shop, cook and clean, so she’s letting me stay for now.
Of course this means conflicts are bound to occur in my pathetically, disgustingly cushy little existence. What happens when June comes around, I’m still refreshing the CVS website for my vaccine, Jacob DeGrom is throwing a perfect game with only 80 pitches in the sixth and the Nets, who have never won a championship, are up 3-1 in the finals? And what if both of those games are on the West Coast and the next morning promises perfect kayaking conditions on Long Island or a perfect morning for a bike ride on the rail trial in Copake Falls?
Bob Murphy had another great line. Every spring, there’d be six good pitchers for five spots, or five outfielders for three spots, and all the talk would be about how the manager would decide who plays and who sits.
Bob referred to this as a “happy problem.”
I suppose that’s my wish for everyone of good will right now. May we all live to see days when we have happier problems.
The South Taconic Trail chops through miles and miles of deep woods, climbing the peaks of three mountains while rambling north and south through three towns in New York and one town in Massachusetts. Near the point at which those two states and Connecticut all stand on one foot, there’s a side trail along the Mighty South Taconic that scrambles up and down Mt. Frissell and leads to the far Mightier Appalachian Trail, which runs parallel at that point just a few miles to the east. Behind our backyard on Trisha’s Mountain is five and a half miles of unbroken wilderness to the east, stretching to the next cup of caahfee in Sheffield, Mass. This wild and pristine swath of the Earth is one of the Nature Conservancy’s designated Last Great Places, which lends to its no street cred.
And it all smells fantastic.
Along a ridge on Trisha’s Mountain, which is really the southern descent of Sunset Rock Mountain, is a trail that’s only about a mile long, called either the Wood Thrush Trail or the Blue Trail, depending upon whom you ask. The Wood Thrush Trail sounds more like morning in the English countryside and The Blue Trail sounds more like a Cannonball Adderly record, so for these purposes I’m going with Wood Thrush. This humble and fabulous little trail starts at Sunset Rock Road, just off the high point of North Mountain Road, then provides a fine aerobic workout up and down a few hollows before easing down at the end into the camping area of Taconic State Park.
On the official New York State Parks South Taconic Trail Map, available for $6.95 at the park office, the Wood Thrush Trail appears to be within close proximity of the point at which our lawn meets the wilderness. I was very excited at this discovery. So much so that I bought a Fiskars 29-inch machete axe on Amazon for $40 with which I planned to bushwhack my own trail through the woods and up the mountain, thus connecting to the Wood Thrush Trail, which would connect me to Sunset Rock Road, which would connect me to the Sunset Rock Trail, where I could in turn access the South Taconic Trail, along which I could travel south past Bash Bish Falls, up and over Mt. Frissell and on to the Appalachian Trail, from where I would have my choice heading north to Mt. Kahtadin in Maine or south to Springer Mountain in Georgia.
It’s a cool looking axe, as you can see. I showed it to Trisha when Amazon delivered it and she said, in her best Karl Childers from the movie “Slingblade”: “I’d like to be baptized.” That’s why I’m in love, boys.
But ain’t nobody gonna be walking to Georgia from our backyard.
Not that I didn’t try. It was in February of 2020. Six weeks after we bought our house in the country and three weeks before the criminal mismanagement of a coronavirus outbreak became a worldwide pandemic that broke everything and screwed everybody. A Buddhist friend from Long Island was doing us a huge favor (kindness and generosity being two of the five pillars of Buddhism) by following Jack, Mookie, Lou the Subaru and me up Route 22 in his van carrying stuff for the house, including two new toilets, obviously the most valuable of cargo, which would later be installed by a local plumber who plays Santa Claus at the Copake Town Christmas Parade every year and plays the organ at a local church every Sunday morning.
Details like that are what makes life worth living.
Being familiar with the area, my Buddhist friend stopped at Brewster Pastry, located in a grand city-state shopping plaza on a shining hill just south of the official upstate line at the Red Rooster, to procure for us the most delicious danish ring I have ever experienced. Due to family obligations, which evolved in the time that took him to drive the 36 miles of Interstate 684, it turned out that instead of crashing on an air mattress on the mountain, which was the original plan, he only had a few hours before he had to turn around and go back to Long Island.
Patience and compassion are two more pillars of Buddhism. Plus he gets credit for the fifth one, wisdom, for knowing about Brewster Pastry.
After we unloaded the toilets and other somewhat lesser valuables, and after a cup of coffee and a memorable danish, we decided to do a little reconnaissance on the Wood Thrush Trail. It was dry and cold under a powder blue winter sky, a perfect afternoon for a good little hike through the woods.
To save time, we drove the three quarters of a mile uphill to the corner of North Mountain and Sunset Rock Road, which is a narrow dirt road that twists all the way through the wilderness from Copake Falls to Mt. Washington, Mass. The parking lot for the Sunset Rock Trail, which merges with the Mighty South Taconic, is about a mile straight uphill, but there is also a sign warning that the road is not maintained from November until March and I don’t think they’re just saying that.
Having been either cruelly deluded by the South Taconic Trail Map or too stupid to comprehend its scale, I figured that we’d eventually be able to see at least the tops of the houses along North Mountain Road, of which we’d be looking for the seventh one. It seemed promising that the trail actually started within a stone’s throw of the road.
As trails are hiked by humans, of course, they get a little wider and a little less wild over time, until they eventually become the Cross Island Parkway. It was clear that the Wood Thrush Trail, despite its frequent blue trail markers, was not as heavily traversed as the other local trails. It also became clear that, after one big dip, we were steadily gaining elevation, to the point where we could see the sky angling through the top of the mountain to our left. This meant that the houses that were down there somewhere to our right were hidden from view because of the extreme slope, except for the chimney and the very top of the great center hall colonial colossus next door to us. It was hard to judge the distance between us and the house, and it was of course, straight downhill. I had already figured out from the $6.95 trail map that there was a 400-foot elevation gain between the yard and the trail, which didn’t seem like a lot until one looked down.
Meanwhile, not only did my Buddhist friend have a tight schedule that winter afternoon, but I also had an appointment to have a propane tank delivered and connected to the stove sometime after 2 p.m. by the good folks at Herrington’s. It was and is my first ever propane tank, so it was obviously a special moment for me. Before we headed back to the house, we took a look at our surroundings on the Wood Thrush Trail. The plan was to take a mental snapshot of sorts of the spot on the trail that seemed to be directly in back of the yard, then walk up from the yard, back into the woods and back up to the trail, which despite the brush would be a mostly possible in February but completely impossible in April without a machete axe and a pair of loppers at the very least, and would also more than likely end in a prolonged bout of Lyme disease.
A quick stop for more danish and coffee and we were climbing the hill behind the house and stepping into the domain of the bears and the owls. I had already ventured into the woods one other time, the day we closed on the house. According to Zillow property line maps, which are almost uniformly useless, Trisha and I own some of these woods. The rest belongs to the People of the State of New York, so technically we own that, too. I had also seen on my trail map that a small stream ran through the woods not far from the edge of the yard. Some careful stepping and a few whacks with the machete got me to this stream, which, on that day at least, was not much more than a trickle of muddy water cutting through the rocky ground, easily bridged if one were blazing a trail to Maine.
My Buddhist friend understands that life is suffering, but the fact was he only had one pair of shoes with him and he was looking at another three-hour drive. So while I pulled myself up the hill with a big walking stick, he took his time to avoid any serious mud.
A few pertinent facts regarding the almost 58-year-old body to which my soul is tethered:
It has spent the majority of its life on the South Shore of Long Island, where there are far more escalators than hills, and no matter how much time it’s spent upstate, it has never truly gotten used to climbing.
It picked up a 24-piece case of Redpack 28 oz. Whole Tomatoes in Aisle 3 of the North Woodmere Foodtown in October of 1981 without bending its knees first, walked a mile back home looking a human jackknife, and has had a pain in its lumbar region ever since.
It was sideswiped and thrown to the ground by a large golden retriever in March of 1989, in a case of tragic miscommunication, resulting in several broken ribs on its right side.
It fell from a chair that flipped from under it sometime in late summer of 2013 while it was stapling bulletin board paper over a white board in Room 111 of Middle School 202, banging its left leg off a desk on the way down, resulting in a cramping pain every time it tries to accelerate or walk uphill.
But in my magical thinking world, I’m just as capable of blazing a trail up a mountain through the woods as anybody. All I have to do is switch into Little Engine That Could Mode and play through the pain.
Remind me of that when this body has 68 years on it. Maybe I’ll still have a sense of humor about it, but you may find me a grave man. (Joke credit: William Shakespeare).
I took the four-hundred-foot incline one step and one breath at a time, stopping every so often to avoid dropping dead of a heart attack. I kept calling down to my Buddhist friend that I was pretty sure I could see the path from where I was, but this was magical thinking as well. At the point where it became impossible to move forward without grabbing hold of the nearest small tree, I got the call on my rectangle from my soon to be new friend Paul from Herrington’s, who is just about everything you’d hope for in the guy that services your furnace and makes sure you don’t blow yourself up with propane. It was time to put this adventure to rest, and I still have no idea how close I got to the Wood Thrush Trail.
I took the Wood Thrush Trail again for a spectacularly good little hike in early May. I got past the point reached three months before with my Buddhist friend and I found a spot where a dry culvert ran straight down the mountain. Across that culvert, a mighty oak had fallen. So like the insects and fungi and other parasites that also took advantage of this tragedy, I found a great new place to sit down in the woods for a while and get some thinking done.
This accomplished, I turned around and headed back to Sunset Rock Road. While the sign marking the trailhead there clearly states “Campground 1 Mile”, and I have no idea how close I got to the campground, which I really didn’t want to get to anyway because it would mean a whole lot of uphill on the way back, it sure felt like I had walked over a mile.
One evening in August, Trisha and I were sitting in camp chairs on the front lawn, doing our Zen sunset thing, and a couple of guys came walking down the road from the direction of Sunset Rock. Figuring out that we were sitting out there just to watch the sunset, one of them asked if we do this every night. We told them every night we can. Then he told us that they were walking back to the campground after walking up the Blue Trail, believing it would be an easy mile, and that they could then walk from there up to the trail that goes to the rock, which, in the ultimate of ironies, closes at sunset.
They didn’t make it to Sunset Rock, and they were now racing daylight to get down North Mountain and back to their campsite. But they stopped to chat from ten feet away. One of the guys said that the trail seemed a lot longer than a mile. I said that’s what I thought.
So I checked it on Google Earth.
It’s a mile.
Maybe he also picked up a case of tomatoes when he was younger, or he got run over by a dog or decided to stand on a chair to staple bulletin board paper. Or maybe a mile through the woods is so full of sensory stimuli that it seems longer than it is.
Or maybe it’s just that trail.
The Sunset Rock Trail, which is a little over a mile round trip, does not seem as long when you’re hiking it. It could be because it changes so drastically in such a short time, or it could be because after not much effort at all you get to sit on a rock and look down over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley and out into the Catskills, infinity and beyond while you eat your peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
I would have expected that a trail that leads to a rock with a million-dollar view would be a tough uphill climb, but most of the uphill is in the car on the seasonal dirt road to the parking lot. I sure enough feel the burn where my leg hit the desk on the one steep ascent, but my walking stick does most of the work.
Once you level off on the Sunset Rock Trail, you’ve reached a new climate with a little dash of alpine. Here you enter a clearing where there are smaller trees and bushes. There are big clumps of mountain laurel blooming in June and July. The air seems to improve suddenly. You’re at the turnoff where the Mighty South Taconic moves on north to its terminus at Catamount Ski Resort, and if you go that way by mistake, you’ll be back in the deep woods and you’ll miss the rock and your peanut butter and jelly sandwich. So don’t do that. Walk to the right.
If you go the right way, you pass through a wild place that looks like it was personally landscaped by God. It’s a tunnel created by high hardwoods on either side leading you through a path of ferns. One does have to be aware of mother#$%ing snakes up here, as they like to move towards the light when it starts to warm, and they like big sunny rocks as much as people do. And those particular Taconic-Berkshire mother#$%ing snakes just happen to be deadly rattlesnakes.
I’ve never run into one, thank Jesus, but I keep them in the back of my mind, like my own impending death. But so far, I’ve evaded both. I’m told that rattlesnake encounters are relatively rare. Besides which, this one little stretch of trail seems so removed from civilization that you might just as likely run into gnomes and fairies, which, while they can enchant you, will not attack you with venomous poison.
Still, I never let my guard down.
The view from Sunset Rock just goes on and on and on, and under ideal conditions, it will make all your worries disappear and you will be born again. But there’s always the chance that a few of the droves have broken loose from the Bash Bish Trail and have wandered up to the rock, waiting to annoy you upon your arrival. A friend of mine who hiked the Mighty South Taconic all the way up from the campground to the rock one day ended up having to share the view with a group of people who just wouldn’t shut up, a situation he described perfectly as, “kind of a buzzkill, John Daniel.”
Not to take anything away from the Bash Bish Trail. It is the Kingdom of the Droves and it always has been, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful place that, ultimately, people can’t ruin, although they have tried very, very hard.
First Insider Tip on the Bash Bish Trail: Take a Monday or a Tuesday off from work. Or be prepared to share it with lots and lots of people on a Saturday or Sunday. Second Insider Tip: All Massachusetts State Parks are alcohol-free, by decree of Governor Michael Dukakis forty years ago. So if you happen to be working on a forty in a brown paper bag as you swagger along the trail, because that’s how you roll, you’re going to have to either finish it or pour it out on the state line.
Third Insider Tip: When you get to the falls, don’t even think about climbing up to the top and diving 200 feet down into the inviting pool of water below, because if you make it you’ll likely get arrested by the Mass Park Police, and if you’re anything like twenty-five reckless or inattentive people in the last century or the mythical Native American woman named Bash Bish with a lot of emotional baggage who didn’t make it, it will be the last thing you do.
Trisha would call this an “unchristian” thought, but it is kind of cool to live near one of the most dangerous tourist attractions in the world. More no street cred. And the thing I love about the falls most of all is, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, It’s always up there Bashin’ and Bishin’, twenty-four-seven, waiting for me to come back and stare at it. It’s Bashin’ and Bishin’ right now. People like me who have been hiking up to the falls for years feel a sense of ownership, like they’re on their way to the home of an old friend who’s always up for a visit. People who have visited once never forget it, and they usually plan to get back there someday.
The trail from the parking lot to the falls is the epitome of a good little hike. Which is to say, that, among good little hikes, there is no better good little hike. Especially if you’re Mookie. Three-quarters of a mile through a state and a commonwealth, deep woods full of interesting scents rising to your left, the trail wide enough to ensure social distancing for people and dogs passing the other way, although Mookie doesn’t really know what those words mean. All he knows is there are people and dogs of all sizes everywhere and the freshest swimming water in two counties. It’s a festival of external stimuli.
The instant that my nine-and-a-half-year-old labby gets out of the car at the Bash Bish parking lot, he’s a puppy again. The first stop is to check the trail kiosks for the latest pee mail. Then he knows the path slopes down gradually until the place where he goes swimming, so he takes me for a walk, and I let him lead.
On one good little hike, when we he was around two years old, Mookie and I were playing in the Bash Bish Brook when we met some nice Massachusetts hippie girls – paisley bandana kerchiefs, nose rings and everything – who had a baby girl with them. The baby was six weeks old, but the hippie girls thought it would be cool for the baby to meet Mookie, and Mookie thinks it would be cool to meet everybody on Earth. And there I was, standing in cold water under warm summer skies, watching an animal for whom I was legally responsible and whose teeth were designed to rip through flesh and bone leaning in to sniff the face of a six-week-old baby. It was one of those moments early on when I realized I was walking around with God’s Most Perfect Dog.
And by the way. That water? Go ahead and drink it. Fill up a bottle with it. Yeah, I know, dogs and barefoot droves. Still. It’s holy water. It cures everything. @ me.
Everybody loves this stretch of the Bash Bish trail. On hot days, people stake out a spot on the brook and just sit there in for hours. There’s lots of big boulders in the middle of the brook to play on or take your narcissistic selfies on. Please be advised though, that if you decide to build a little balancing stone statue on one of the boulders, which seems to have been a thing for a while now, the manager of Taconic State Park, normally the most affable of gentleman, will come along at some point and angrily kick them over. God put the stones where he needed them. As much fun as stone balancing is, God know what he’s doing. Leave the damn stones alone.
Things got out of control in the summer of 2020 during the Pandemic. Droves invaded from every direction. They parked all over Copake Falls and dragged barbecue equipment and other bad ideas into the park and down the trail to the falls. On the weekends of these Drove Invasion Days, Mookie and I went up to the Roe Jan Park that the droves don’t know about – yet- to get in our swim and our good little hikes.
By the third week of July, there were police roadblocks at the two entrances to Copake Falls off Route 22. To go get take-out from Dad’s Diner or the Church Street Deli, I’d have to get waved on to make the left out of the hamlet, then fifteen minutes later, smile, roll down the window and say, goofily, “Hi! Just goin’ back to my house with lunch!” to armed law enforcement officers. Fact is, all my ID says I’m from Long Island, so I had to rely on their kind nature to gain entry to Route 344.
This insanity reached its zenith when people began lining up in their cars in a staging area for hours on Saturdays and Sundays just to get the chance to get in a good little hike to Bash Bish Falls. Mookie and I stuck to the Rail Trail, the Roe Jan Park and our secret little spot under the bridge.
You can’t blame the droves. Not all of them were unrepentant assholes from Long Island. Some of them were good, nature-respecting folks who were just trying to get out of the house. Of course, I didn’t have to clean up after the unrepentant assholes, so my sympathy comes easy. But these have been miserable times, and I’ve been using a good little hike through the woods to Bash Bish Falls for years to inject my spirit with some instant happy. Why would I, a nauseatingly lucky son of a bitch, deny that to anybody else, especially now?
Mookie and I went back to the Bash Bish Trail on the last day of September. It was a Wednesday. To the untrained, non-park-employee eye, the area showed no signs of the human invasion it had experienced over the summer, but the friendly Mass Park Policeman on duty that day to make sure nobody jumps off the falls told me stories that would bend your bones. The air was crisp, the trees were in color, and the brook was not too cold yet. So Mookie got in his swimming, then we walked along and said hi to people in masks as we climbed the big hill past the Mass border and up into the trees, where you’re at eye level with the birds. Our old friend was waiting for us up at the end of the trail, Bashin’ and Bishin’ away, and we sat on a rock, and we stared for a while.
We were there again for the First Day Hike on New Year’s Day of 2021, when everyone was guilty of a little magical thinking, but that’s how it should be. The First Day Hike was led by the affable park manager and his beautiful Newfoundland dog Mahi Bear, whom Mookie resents because Mahi gets more attention. There were only about ten or twelve people with us on the hike, but there were lots and lots of other visitors on the trail. The weather had suddenly improved and a few hundred people had the same idea at the same time: 2020 was such catastrophe of sadness that they were damned if they weren’t going to start 2021 by heading up to Bash Bish Falls for an injection of happiness. We greeted every single one of them, and they greeted us back. A few of them told Mookie how beautiful he was, and he wagged to say he knew that, but thank you for saying it.
Mookie and I love the Bash Bish Trail, and the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, which is great for broken down old guys from Long Island. Neither one of us needs to walk to Maine, or even the three mountains of the Mighty South Taconic Trail. But it is nice to know they’re up there. In his good dog life, he has gotten little licks of peanut butter while looking down from Sunset Rock over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. And if I want to go get lost in the woods for a while, my giant oak tree bench on the Wood Thrush Trail is there waiting for me. If it’s time for a little excitement and some holy water, we’re off on another good little hike to check on our old friend, always up there Bashin’ and Bishin’, and always up for a visit.
And if it ever seems like I’m taking any of this for granted, please don’t hesitate to pick up a couple of stones from the brook and aim them at my head.
We knew we’d be going back to see The Dee’s again before Thanksgiving. We just weren’t sure if we’d be going back to see Joey or Tommy.
We hadn’t been inside the gigantic, glass-walled store at Dee’s Nursery after the first frost since the last time we visited Santa Claus as part of our annual Christmas tree hunting and gathering tradition. The inside store is Joey’s domain, although his dad, Tom Sr., the Dee’s patriarch, still hangs out by the registers while we watch the damage we’ve done to ourselves in slow motion. Usually we won’t visit until April, when it’s time to load up Lou the Subaru with bags of tall fescue grass seed, with the topsoil and the peat moss to throw on top of it. Whether it’s Grass Seed Day, or a month later when we start loading up on annuals, veggies and compost, Trisha and I always get a hearty greeting from Joey. Long ago we maxed out on planting trees and shrubs and hybrid tea roses and perennials on our little 60 X 100 plot, so we usually don’t get out to the yard much anymore to see Joey’s older brother Tommy until the Christmas trees show up. But Tommy is always good for a hearty greeting, too. If you were Joey or Tommy, you’d be glad to see us, too.
The Dee’s Nursery is a second-generation family business in Oceanside, Long Island, started in 1958. It was one of my mom’s favorite places to visit in the springtime. Our Christmas Tree hunting and gathering tradition when I was a kid was to go to Garden World in Franklin Square, where they had reindeer you could feed, which is horrible in retrospect, but I suppose my parents and everyone else involved meant well at the time. But Mom loved going to see The Dee’s in the springtime, and taught me to love it, too. For a local, independent business, they have a huge operation, and their selection, quality and service in all things gardening just can’t be beat. Tommy told us one year that he drives a crew up to the family’s own Christmas Tree farm in Franklin, Maine every November. He was very happy and very proud of that, as well as being proud of their annual donation of thousands of Christmas trees shipped to troops serving overseas. And we are always happy and proud to buying one of those trees from this family year after year, comin’ to us straight from Maine.
Every business transaction should be as pleasant.
Unfortunately, we’re in America, so while the The Dee’s are all about service, selection and quality, their prices can be beat quite easily in any season, specifically by the likes of the Home Depot, the presence of which in Rego Park, Queens convinced my late father-in-law to close down his own second-generation nursery business, McCloskey’s Florist, shortly after I joined his family. That was tough to watch.
So we’re willing to pay The Dee’s a couple of extra bucks to support a local business and stay out of the Dante’s Inferno which is the Valley Stream Home Depot parking lot. And in addition to helping support The Dee Boys and their families, we have two other local guys: Ray, whose dad started Alma’s Garden Center on Sunrise Highway in Lynbrook around the time I was born, and Dave, who owns Di Setta Nursery down in Woodmere. A conservative estimate of $50,000 big ones over the course of eighteen years have been split among these three businesses by two slightly touched people who consider growing flowers in the yard to be an unnegotiable necessity.
In years when money was tight, we bought our flowers and our dirt on credit cards, which is quite stupid when considered objectively and I wouldn’t recommend it. But we had to have them. In our defense, we’ve never spent money on lavish vacations and fancy restaurants. So it goes that I may die without seeing Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but damn you should have seen our gardens in June.
I was away from the gardens a lot this year. More so than in any year since we began building them up from nothing in 2002. I spent about eight weeks of elapsed time in 2020 up in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, among the Taconic-Berkshire Mountains that nature built from nothing a couple of million years ago. There are lots of wildflowers and flowering shrubs around Trisha’s Mountain, but nothing we’ve planted, which I suppose could change in time, but as I pointed out in Chapter 5, it would take some intense negotiations with the deer and the bunnies and the groundhogs to get it off the ground.
We never took it for granted for a second this year. It was our incredibly good fortune to have a property up in the country with lots of oxygen, especially in the midst of all the Pandemic misery this year – when just down the road there were people sitting on line in their cars for hours outside Taconic State Park waiting for a chance to just take a walk to Bash Bish Falls, and less fortunate people than those people were dying on hospital beds. We’re only a year into our second home owning adventure as I write this, so the novelty has not even come close to wearing off yet. We’re still just walking around feeling stupid lucky. Knock freaking wood.
So I wasn’t giving the gardens a lot of thought during those eight weeks when I wasn’t in them. They were being watered or rained on and the weeds would wait ‘till I got back. I suppose in my mind I was beginning to move on from them. But that’s how it happens, isn’t it. You think about something until something else comes along that requires bandwidth in your brain, and the thing you were thinking about starts getting crowded out. Sometimes when you look back, you realize that’s kind of a scary process. The more time I spent up n the country this year, getting to know our upstate home, the less I was thinking about the downstate one. Not only can you not be in two places at once, it’s hard to even think of two places at once.
But after all these years, most of the landscaped space on Duffy’s Creek is on autopilot anyway. Most of the trial and error has been done. The losers don’t grow here anymore, and the winners come back stronger every year.
The Big Plan is, of course, to phase out Duffy’s Creek and live full-time on Trisha’s Mountain. When that actually happens remains a question. Back in the Aughts, I noticed on a sign that Copake Town was founded in 1824, so I was thinking I could be up here full time by the time the Copake Bicentennial comes around, maybe even walk down Main Street on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam. I have big dreams.
But that would mean only three more growing season’s on Duffy’s Creek. And that would also mean eventually selling the house, perhaps to someone who rips out all the gardens and replaces them with heavily fertilized grass, or worse, just lets them go to hell, which wouldn’t take long at all.
Once I landed back on Long Island in mid-November of 2020, following my nineteenth trip up and down Route 22 for the year, this time to take delivery of a new industrial-grade humidifier for the basement, I decided to get off the road for a while. I’d been back and forth eight times in thirteen weeks, and the plan (in progress as I write this) was to stay on the creek for six weeks, through Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mookie in particular was exhausted from all the traveling. We needed a break.
But unlike Mookie, I’m not good at doing nothing, no matter how hard or how often I try. I enjoy doing nothing, but after a while I have to do something. I admire people who can keep doing nothing going. I decided that not only was I going to clean up the gardens down to the last fallen leaf, but that this year, since I had the time, I was going to give them all a damn good mulching. And not only that, I was going to power wash the patio so it would already be clean in the spring. I have big dreams.
And I love mulch. I love topsoil and compost, too: The look, the smell, the feel, everything. I suppose I could live without the weight. But still. There’s no more agreeable afternoon activity to me than getting down and dirty in the gardens.
We have seven of them. They all have names. In the front are two semicircle raised beds built with river stone. One is my creation, which starts out as a well-mannered and proper bed of tulips and daffodils in the spring and devolves into an insane tangle of sunflowers and zinnias by July. I call that the Crazy Summer Garden. The opposite semicircle is Trisha’s statelier “Cottage Garden”, highlighted by a giant purple beautyberry bush, chiefly the domain of our resident mockingbird no matter how hard Lyle the Cat stares through the window at him. There’s mock orange and flowering quince around the front, coneflower and bee balm in the middle and creeping purple phlox cascading over the stones. Unlike my garden, somebody had a plan.
On the side of the garage was the tomato and vegetable garden. This year I phased that out and threw in a couple of dahlias which I mostly neglected despite their beauty. I couldn’t keep the damn squirrels away from the tomatoes, and I didn’t want to grow lettuce and broccoli that I wasn’t home to eat or give away. But I still grew cucumbers in another little patch next to the shed this year, way more than I could use, which was good news for a neighbor on the creek who loves cucumber sandwiches. Meanwhile, my 2020 bread and butter pickles were another raging success.
Between our backyard fence and the creek is my Wetland Garden. In one section, I’ve been naturalizing purple and pink native asters for ten years now, and let me tell you, come September, my aster is the most spectacular aster you’ve ever seen. In another section are shrubs that don’t mind drinking crappy brackish water; red twig dogwood, rosa rugosa and winterberry holly, plus a red cedar tree that my brother and I saved from being uprooted after Hurricane Sandy, which is now known as the Leaning Cedar. Most of these plants were, of course, bought from Tommy Dee, many on credit cards. The whole thing is held back from the creek with a bulkhead of logs, wire fencing and dirt that I carted in after ripping out forty years of thug brush eighteen years ago. I had the time of my life.
Along a wooden fence are Trisha’s hybrid tea roses. The roses also stretch into a spot between two houses that we call the Secret Garden. All the roses have cultivar names and stories which she’s told me lots of times because I asked, and she planted many of them in memory of people. Apparently, their preferred pronoun is “she”, as in, “she needs to be cut back.” I can’t keep much of this straight, but I do try really hard. And Trisha works very hard at keeping the hybrid tea roses sprayed with the stuff that keeps them from getting eaten up by little parasites every year. You can get high off the aroma of Trisha’s rose garden in June, and often we do. But one season of neglect and they’d be nothing but angry, thorny green sticks.
Out the back door is my Patio Garden. My parents had a deck when we bought the house. They had it built in the 1970’s, when you were required to build a deck in your suburban backyard under penalty of law. The deck had seen better days by the time we bought it, so we were already planning to rip it out and replace it with a patio when we visited the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass. It was there that I encountered the Herb Associates, a group of volunteers that maintained an herb garden with a patio right outside a kitchen in one of the buildings on the grounds.
I have to admit, my biggest takeaway from this experience was the sheer joy of knowing that there was a group of old ladies from Stockbridge who called themselves the Herb Associates, but I also liked the idea. Eventually, the garden out the back door on Duffy’s Creek became a combination of herbs, perennials and annuals surrounding a loose-laid brick patio that looks like the mason who built it was actually an English teacher on summer vacation.
Around the patio, I have planters where I put the same annuals every year because I know they’ll behave themselves and look great doing it: Geraniums and lantana, both in red, white mandevilla, some years white jasmine if I want to splurge, plus some basil and oregano that I didn’t get around to harvesting this year. Plus I have three highbush blueberries in planters on the patio and four more on the side of the garage, which I’ve used to make some sublime pies over the years, and which us make us very popular with robins.
Since we’ve done all the heavy planting (and transplanting), and the gardens are what they are, most of the work now is adding compost in spring and keeping everything weeded and watered. Invariably, since you only have to get dirty once, I’ll do all the weeding in one shot once every two or three weeks. I can tell which days were weeding days just by looking at my Fitbit history. Any days when I walked 25,000 steps and saw some serious cardio orange and red on my heartbeat chart, those were the days I was out playing in the dirt.
After all these years of pulling weeds, I know every one of them personally, many by name. I can tell you, for instance, that every year I have to pull out deadly nightshade. And every year, deadly nightshade says, “Yeah, OK. Whatever, dude. I’ll be back.” Late in the season, I have to pull out white snakeroot, which can poison milk if cows eat it, and reportedly killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother. Weeding is serious business.
The fall cleanup is actually the biggest job in the gardens now. First is deadheading all the perennials and pulling out the dried-up ghosts of hundreds of zinnias and marigolds and other annuals. Then comes raking out all the leaves and cultivating the soil, then chopping out the last of this year’s weeds. It takes hours and hours and hours. Which is great if, like me, you enjoy this sort of thing, and you happen to have hours and hours and hours.
Any teacher who rides the rhythms of the school year knows that the fall semester is insanely busy. So for all the years I was on that ride, I’d check the Weather Channel app constantly to see what Saturdays and what Sundays would be suitably benign enough to get out and clean up the yard. And knowing how long each section took, I could plan out what I could get done in the time I had. My ultimate goal was to get a bed of cedar mulch down on every garden surface once all the leaves were raked up and the annuals were pulled out and the perennials were cut back and the deadly nightshade and the white snakeroot and all their outlaw buddies were on the brush pile.
I very rarely got anywhere close to that goal. Some years were better than others. Some years I’d still be cleaning out last years’ dead stuff in April. But a couple of years, I got all the mulch down, and it somehow made going to work easier knowing that I did it. This year, with a stretch of freakishly warm weather and a freakish amount of time on my hands, I realized that the attaining the ultimate goal of a damn good full mulching, topped off by a power washing, would somehow make standing around inside the house and looking out the windows all winter a lot easier. I cleaned the gardens until they screamed for mercy and gave them a long overdue mulching.
I usually go for the dyed red cedar mulch, but this year, Dave Di Setta, who keeps his mulch right at the front gate for easy access, only had fifteen bags of red left, and seeing as it takes thirty bags total (and three round trips for Lou the Subaru) I went half red and half plain brown this year.
it’s a beautiful sight and a warm, fuzzy feeling for this OCD sufferer. Not only is it a nice warm blankie for all the plants and enrichment for the soil, it’s also much easier to track what plants are breaking the soil next spring, meaning it’s also harder for the weeds to hide. So in the words of Cosmo Kramer, you’ve got to mulch. You’ve got to.
In the midst of this herculean effort, completed in three-or-four-hour blocks of time over the course of eight nice-weather days, I also put up the Christmas lights, which look delightful and which I absolutely hate doing, and which nobody will actually come to the house to see for themselves. I think I do it for my parents, most of all, and for the memories it conjures up. I have no control over whether any future owners of the property will celebrate Christmas.
Which brings us to the tree. Last December, which was two-thousand years ago, was very exciting for us. We were closing on a house in Copake Falls, a dream we had dreamed for twenty years. The closing was set for the 20th of December, the day the boiler stopped working in the house on what was not yet Trisha’s Mountain, and the closing had to be postponed. Someone flipped the reset switch on the boiler the next day and it’s been working since (knock wood again), and the closing was finally a done deal a week later, on the 27th. We reserved one of our old cabins at Taconic State Park to stay over both times, to avoid nighttime winter driving, which can kill you.
Fortunately, we had the World’s Most Responsible Teenager on the block to take care of the cats on both nights, but this time, she had the added pressure of watering the live Christmas tree next to the radiator in the living room. Leaving a live Christmas tree unattended, even overnight, gave us the willies. I guess I’ve seen one too many videos of blazing Christmas trees infernos. In practical terms, there was very little chance of the Christmas tree burning down the house. They don’t spontaneously combust like the drummers in Spinal Tap. As Bruce Springsteen sang in the worst song he ever wrote, you can’t start a fire without a spark. But if the tree had burned the house down, Lyle the Cat would surely have had something to do with it.
So this year, knowing that we could get up to the Mountain between Christmas and New Year’s, we took a ride to Dee’s to see Joey’s artificial Christmas trees for ourselves inside the store. Our tradition is to put up our tree in the first weekend in December, then take it down the first weekend after New Year’s, by which time some of them over the years have grown a trifle crispy. But neither Trisha nor I, and by extension our offspring and animals, has ever experienced a Christmas without a real Christmas tree. As a kid, I felt pity for people with artificial trees, people who were happy to spend the season looking at a sad, scrawny green plastic scarecrow, usually with boring all-white lights, that looked as much like a tree as a White Castle looks like Versailles, or as a Taco Bell looks like a hacienda. I don’t care what you got for Christmas, or how much fun you had. That’s not really living.
As with many things in my lifetime, though, artificial Christmas tree research and development has grown by leaps and bounds. The ones they make now look very much like trees. They’re pre-lit. You can find one in perfect symmetry to your available space and the initial investment pays for itself in three years of not buying a tree from Tommy’s yard. And you can leave them up as long as you like. John Prine left his up all year long, but he had a bigger house. And there would be no chance of fire by stupidity if we left the tree up on the Creek and drove up to the Mountain, despite Lyle the Cat.
Joey Dee took us through a couple of handsome artificial trees that looked promising and told us he had plenty in stock and more coming in. Nobody was coming to our house over Christmas, so we’d be the only ones who would see it. We’d likely end up getting a fake tree when we move upstate permanently because you really couldn’t put a living tree anywhere near the fireplace, so why not just get used to having a fake tree now? There was only one overriding downside, only one good reason why we didn’t pull the trigger.
We didn’t want to.
I started reading about Zen Buddhism when I was in college. Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki. Those guys. I liked everything about it. In Zen philosophy, the past and the future are illusions. Any wisdom you’ve gained along your path is meant to applied to right now, not to some future day. What’s more, our house and gardens and creek and your house and all your stuff are events, not things, because everything is in a constant, slow-motion state of flux, and nothing is permanent. And since they’re events, not things, they should be celebrated like events, with as much enthusiasm as you work up, because they’re going to end, and we’re going to end, and since that will be the end of that, this right here and this right now are all we’ve got.
But as hard as I’ve tried, I’ve just never been able master the art of living in the Here and Now. I don’t know what’s in anyone else’s brain beyond what they’ve told me, so maybe I’m better at it than I think I am. All I know is that even after years and years of piling up great memories, there are still stupid little moments that I wish I had handled differently rattling around in my head like loose change in a coffee can. And Lord knows I’ve scattered baskets of brain cells across my years worrying about things that theoretically might have happened but never did.
And even when I’ve been as close as I could get to living fully and completely in the Here and Now, and there have been lots and lots of those times, I never went too long without checking my watch. It’s how I’m wired, and that’s just sad, but it’s no excuse. Very often, I enjoyed the hell out of the job I did for 25 years, but I could always tell you exactly how long I had to keep doing it until I didn’t have to.
But if anything could get me to finally shake off all this mental illness, finding myself floating along through the days, collecting my monthly Cash For Life payments from the New York State Teacher’s Retirement System while waiting for a Pandemic to end (and a psychopath to go away) may have been the ticket. I’ve cut off a big chunk of my past and I have no more than a vague plan for the future. Whenever I check my watch, I’m right smack in the middle of the Here and Now.
Self-awareness is one of the benefits of getting old, unless you’re hopeless. It becomes easier to catch yourself when you’re up to your same old lame tricks. Too often this year I’ve found myself sitting on my poorly constructed patio on the creek, thinking about what it would be like to leave Valley Stream and move up to Copake Falls permanently, how I’d feel about letting it all go. Then I’d be up on the Mountain thinking about what it would be like to be there with no back to go to. None of this is anything that I really had to think about at that moment, and any second I that I was, I knew I was only cheating myself out of good time.
And I’ve come to realize that the only reason I’m giving any unthinkworthy thoughts any space in my head at all, instead of enjoying the passage of time, which is of course the secret of life, is because I’m not thinking about my lesson plans for Monday morning, or what to do about that one kid. So all this extra room opens up in my brain, and something has to fill the vacuum. At times in 2020, to my credit, I happily feasted on whatever was in front of my eyes in the Here and Now.
But sometimes I pigged out on boxes of worry cookies and bags of regret chips.
We’re all works in progress. If you’re doing it right.
A moment of personal enlightenment came as it often does, after cleaning. In this case, on the first Sunday of December, when the temperature on Long Island was a sickeningly sweet 70 degrees. I had finished all the mulching and power washed the patio bricks, which takes just as long as cleaning them on your hands and knees with a pencil eraser, then topped off the weekend by cleaning out the garage. The property on Duffy’s Creek looked as good as it ever had on the first Sunday in December.
I was sitting in the yard with my nine-year-old dog, enjoying the fruits of my labor and watching the walkers on the creek path. Looking at how beautiful and how happy he looked, my mind had to find a way to try and ruin it by wandering up an unpleasant stream, as it does too often, to the day when I’d have to let Mookie go.
Then I remembered an excellent cartoon I came across called “Why Dogs Are Better Than People”. The artist drew a man and his dog walking. The man’s think bubble is crowded with dollar signs and buildings and cars and angry looking people and piles of paper. The dog’s think bubble is he and the man walking. I told myself to just stop it already. We’re Here. It’s Now. Nothing matters until it does.
And that was how the Christmas Tree Decision ultimately led us to the Fraiser Firs comin’ to ya straight from Maine via Tommy’s yard. Because we’re Here and it’s Now, and there’s no reason to get a fake tree this year just because we might get one in some distant future Christmas. We made one change in the tradition, and it I think it’ll work out just swell. Instead of waiting until the first weekend in December, we went to Dee’s on the day before Thanksgiving. There was only one other customer in the yard, and most of the trees hadn’t even been unwrapped, but we found this year’s winner within five minutes.
So we’re going to keep Christmas as well as we possible can, and we’re going to try to create a little joy in this miserable time. Then we’re going to take down that perfect Christmas tree the week after Christmas, and we’re going to head up to Copake Falls. Just for good measure when we get there, we’ll put up the little prelit tabletop Christmas tree that was in my father’s room at the nursing home when he woke up to his last Christmas. We’ll have a fire in the fireplace on New Year’s Eve and we won’t burn down either house.
And as another New Year rolls in, I won’t have to see the pictures of people in Taconic State Park enjoying a bonfire after their First Day Hike to Bash Bish Falls and say boy that looks like fun I’d like to get in on that some year because I’ll be there, soaking it in, unconcerned about any other day, past or present.
And by that same logic, I’ll still be pulling deadly nightshade and white snakeroot out of the gardens at Duffy’s Creek until the day we hand somebody else the keys. And if that day happens to be in December, I may just treat them to a damn good mulching before I move on, and before the next event starts.
We’re not sure where we’re putting the litter box on Trisha’s Mountain. We’re also not sure when we’re going to leave Valley Stream for good, so where to eventually put the theoretical litter box on the Mountain is sort of a pointless thing to worry about. But that’s what I do.
In addition to being fortunate enough to live in the divine presence of God’s Most Perfect Dog, we have three cats. The oldest, Sunny, is a silky black and white girl with eyes the color of a forest at twilight. She is God’s Most Perfect Cat. We consider her one of the adults here. The other two I’ll tell you about, brother and sister brown tabbies named Lyle and Allie, are excellent cats in their own right, but there can only be one God’s Most Perfect Cat.
We’re also fortunate to have God’s Most Perfect 17-Year-Old Neighbor on Duffy’s Creek, who conscientiously looks after those cats, AND waters the gardens if necessary while we go traipsing off to sit on a mountain. Plus we have another neighbor who can provide backup when the first one’s not available. Really. How lucky are we? When I was a teenager, I occasionally took care of a neighbor’s dog named Pugsley, whom I never particularly bonded with, but I kept him alive for several weeks at a time, so I know it’s a relatively easy gig. But still, it helps that Maya really likes the cats and the cats really like Maya, and the other neighbor is a cat person, too.
And yet, we still feel super guilty every time we ditch the cats and head north again. And you know that it’s just impossible to explain to them 1) exactly where we’re going 2) how long we’ll be gone this time and 3) why it’s in their best interests that they don’t come along with us until they absolutely have to. I’m sure even Mookie has to tried to explain it to them, and he couldn’t either. So they’re just as confused as hell. But all things considered, our cats have it pretty good. If they complain, which they occasionally do, we remind them of how they got here: “We rescued you.”
These cats are our second group of three cats. They came to live on Duffy’s Creek almost ten years ago, on Jack’s 7th birthday in February of 2011, five months before the heralded arrival of the Labrador Retriever puppy who would quickly grow into the great, lumbering beast that is Mookie Dog.
Trisha had three cats when we met. Two of them were seven years old and the other was six. And apparently, I told my future wife on one of our first dates that I planned to have a dog someday and name him after Mookie Wilson (my all-time favorite New York Met) though I have no memory of actually saying this out loud. I guess that’s how you know you’ve met your soul mate. So seeing as I had every intention of keeping Trisha, I had every intention of adopting her three cats as my cats, too, even before I met them. It was all good as far as I was concerned. I’d always been a cat guy as well as a dog guy, and I could wait on the dog if I absolutely had to. Just not forever.
Those cats, Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper, were with us for most of our first ten years together. Two of them got to meet the dog and neither was impressed.
Rewinding a little more: About six years before I met Trisha’s “girls”, at a point in time when I was taking refuge with my parents, they and I started feeding a couple of sweet stray cats that were hanging around the creek. Naturally, this situation spiraled into my poor father having to chase kittens around the backyard to take them to a shelter several months later. But we managed to get the main mamma cat fixed. Mom gave her the unfortunate name “Runt” and she ended up living around 15 years. She moved out to the retirement home with the old folks when they left the creek. At the point when Runt was becoming domesticated, I also tried to save a friendly little black cat that hung around with Runt who I named Mose Allison, but he got hit by a car, and I had to scrape his body off the street for a proper burial. It’s a cat jungle out there.
We had a big, tough cat named Herman when I was growing up. My oldest sister saved him when she happened across a guy who was drowning kittens in the creek by throwing them off the bridge. Yeah, I know. This was on May 2, 1965, which happened to be my second birthday. My sister, who was 12 at the time, insisted that the guy give her one of the kittens, before he cruelly murdered the others, and Herman (named after Herman’s Hermits) lived with us for 18 years. He was an indoor / outdoor cat, and every once in a while he’d come home bloodied and battle-scarred from popping off to the wrong cat in the middle of the night, but knowing Herman, we knew the other cat likely got it worse.
Still, it didn’t take too much convincing for Trisha to make me see that letting a cat come and go outside as he or she pleases was in general a pretty bad idea for everyone involved. After meeting Jenny, Jasper and Jezebel, none of whom had a speck of outside dust on them, I tried to preach this gospel to my parents, advising them that if they were going to keep Runt as a pet, they were better off keeping her inside, and pretty soon she’d give up trying to fight them on it. She had already had her tail bitten off as a kitten (I found her and a few of her cat friends playing cat hockey with it on the deck one morning) and I knew they had a lot of emotional investment tied up in this little mottled tabby.
Well, they always called me a know-it-all, but I came by that honestly, so Runt the Cat had an acre or two of woods to patrol out at the Jefferson’s Ferry Lifecare Community. But being an indoor / outdoor cat, she’d occasionally go on special assignment and disappear for a few days, thus scaring the crap out of my parents. She ultimately died right in my father’s lap when she was about 16 years old. And you know what? My parents’ health and well-being went straight downhill after that, not so much out of grief of losing the cat, but more out of not having anyone else to take care of anymore. I think that thought a lot.
Meanwhile, I had embarked on the journey of being a stepfather to Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper for the back nine of their lives. Jenny and Jezebel were both part Maine Coon, and since my recent frame of reference had been a cat that could fit inside a Costco coffee can, they seemed monstrously gigantic in comparison the first time I saw them. Jasper was a little black female cat with a long, long tail and seemingly hidden opposable thumbs that could open any door or drawer, who Trisha had named already when she found out she was actually female and not male, so she decided it was actually short for Jasperella and left it at that.
Before Trisha and I moved in together, I didn’t see too much of Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper. She and the cats were living at her parents’ house in Point Lookout, and even though her parents weren’t actually there, there would be no boys at the sleepover and that was that. So we spent lots of time at my little apartment on the highway in Lynbrook and the cats spent a lot of time waiting for Trisha to come home. If they had made that connection, they probably would have been less friendly to me than they were when I occasionally did see them, which wasn’t friendly at all.
So you could imagine how pissed they must have been to find themselves scooped up from a big airy house by the ocean in Point Lookout and transported to a third-floor apartment in a tenement in downtown Valley Stream. And what was worse, I was there.
Over the years we’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to block out most of the year and a half that we spent in that third-floor apartment, especially any part that isn’t funny in retrospect. All told, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant place to live. But they allowed cats. And smokers. So you get what you get and you don’t get upset. And once they established that I was home earlier in the day and more often, and that I had the requisite thumbs needed to open cans and clean litter boxes, Jenny, Jezebel and Jasper started coming around.
Jenny and I bonded through our shared love of naps. Being part Maine Coon, she had a fur coat like the ones Sinatra and the Brat Pack probably bought for their girlfriends, and a purr like the sound of an outboard motor on a mountain lake. Trisha told me early on that Jenny was actually a doctor, and I’ll tell you what: You show me the best treatment or medication that science has developed to lower human blood pressure, and for ten years I could’ve countered with Jenny Cat. After we finished the move to the creek over Christmas Vacation in 2001, Jenny and I took a three-and-a-half-hour nap one cold and cloudy Sunday afternoon in January that I have never replicated.
Jezebel, whose name morphed into “Bella” was the original “Heat-Seeking Kitty”. That’s Trisha’s line. She’s been cracking me up for the entire 21st Century with stuff like that. As soon as Bella saw me sitting down in my comfy chair she’d be on it immediately. Furthermore, it became an especially vital mission to secure the lap if a blanket were tossed over it. Then she could sink her claws in and enjoy whatever was on TV, Mets Baseball and Sir David Attenborough documentaries being her favorites. Of course, being a cat, if you walked up to Bella when she was trying to sleep on a pile of towels and tried to pet her, she’d likely claw your hand up before you knew what happened.
Bella and I also bonded over butter. In fact, her other nickname was “Butter Cat”, which wasn’t a Pearl Jam song. One morning in the tenement, she was at my feet staring at me as I ate an English muffin. As you probably know, nobody can stare at you like a cat can stare at you. And while she was staring at me, she was telepathically instructing me to scoop a little butter off the English muffin with my index finger and hold it where she could get to it, a message which I telepathically received and responded to in kind. And thus was born a morning ritual that would last ten years.
Jasper’s favorite ritual, besides hunting for crinkly paper, was making one of us follow her around. She wasn’t too crazy about sharing naps or laps. She liked attention on her terms, and she knew she couldn’t compete with two Maine Coons. Nobody could. So once or twice a day one of us had to follow her around through the house until she decided on a good place for rubbies and scratchies, and if we didn’t follow as instructed, she would yell at us. For almost ten years, the last thing I did before leaving for work in the morning was to pet a little black cat with a long, long tail at the top of the stairs.
We all have snapshots in our heads of the most perfect moments of our lives, and if you’re like me, you don’t call them up on the screen behind your eyes as often as you should, because you spend too much time staring at the physical screen in front of your eyes and getting pissed off, or worse, dredging up all the bad stuff for no good reason. I’m working on all that. But I digress. One of my all-time favorite mental snapshots is the picture of my three step-cats at sunrise on Christmas Morning of 2001, the day after we fought a violent and bloody battle to get them into crates and move them out of the tenement and into their new house on Duffy’s Creek. We set up one of the sheet-metal radiator covers we had to buy for the tenement in front of the picture window looking out on the backyard and the creek as a “Cat TV” perch, and there they were at dawn, lined up at the window whisker to whisker, awestruck by the birds fluttering around the feeders.
I knew they could all grow old here and they’d never have to leave. I couldn’t necessarily say the same for myself, and still can’t, but for that moment I was content because they were content. Animals make your house a home, for sure.
So we all settled in and made ourselves at home in the House on Duffy’s Creek, and Jenny and I took naps, and Bella and I ate butter and watched The Mets and PBS, and Jasper and I walked around the house together, and we all enjoyed the occasional game of string and Trisha had a baby. I have lots of favorite mental snapshots from that experience. One of them is when we brought said baby home from the hospital on a sunny winter’s morning and laid him down on the bed to take him out of his warm flannelly yellow baby traveling clothes.
Jenny Cat immediately jumped up on the bed to see what we had there. And we both had two immediate thoughts in split-second progression: “Get the fuck away from my baby,” followed by, “chill. She knows what she’s doing.”
So we checked ourselves and let Jenny come in for a sniff, through a permanent scar across our only child’s face would’ve been hard to explain. And Jenny sniffed the baby and the baby gave Jenny a wide-eyed baby look and Jenny decided as we already had that nothing smells better than a new baby, and she was now Jack’s cat, too. Bella and Jasper liked him well enough, but he moved too unpredictably, and besides, Jenny found him first.
So we can at least say that our only child has never been without an animal brother or sister. As the baby started standing and toddling, he enjoyed going on trips around the house in pursuit of “Bap-per” and watching Bella hunt string and lick butter off Dad’s finger, but Jenny was always available for a warm, furry purr.
Babies grow up. Pets grow old. Take lots of pictures.
I’m an admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, despite our respective political affiliations and despite all the dead animals hanging in his living room in Oyster Bay, Long Island, which I’ve visited several times. He only lived 60 and a half years, which would give me only three more, though I reckon I’ve eaten less read meat, and probably smoked less, so I’m hopeful. The man lived like a man on fire. He was passionate about learning and exploring and was always looking for ways to change things for the better, and I’m sure he would’ve stuck to digital photography if he were taking those African safaris today. I tell you all this because I carry one of Teddy’s best pieces of practical wisdom as a personal mantra, every day:
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
That’s a good one, huh?
We can’t stop the babies from growing up. We can’t stop the animals, or ourselves for that matter, from growing old and dying. We can’t hold on to the good times, but we can keep trying to conjure up new good times until all our time is up. Maybe not the same, but just as good in their own right. Where we are, with what we have.
Jenny went first, on the last day of September, 2010. She had found a spot next to the piano, and she stayed there most of the time for months, waiting to die. At this point, Trisha had acquiesced to getting a family dog, and we had first dibs on a Labrador puppy to be born at a breeder’s house in Saugerties the following spring. Bella and “Bap-per” were holding on, but we knew they were both nearing the end of their run.
Jack was never going to get a brother or sister, but he was never going to experience a family without animals either, so that was something.
But I did feel a little guilty about getting a purebred dog through a breeder when there were dogs who needed to be rescued. Among my selfish reasons were that Trisha had never lived with a dog and we needed a relatively calm dog who could provide some therapy, because that’s what we all that’s needed.
But since we were where we were, and had what we had, I felt like we needed to keep the good times rolling, before the calm dog was even born, so I decided we needed to go rescue a cat.
I found God’s Most Perfect Cat the same way I found God’s Most Perfect Wife. On the Internet. Albeit at a different website. I saw Trisha’s picture on match.com in 1999 and said, “gosh, she’s sure pretty!” and the rest is history. I saw Sunny Cat’s picture on petfinders.com in 2010 and showed it to Trisha and she said, “gosh! She’s sure pretty!” And we rescued her.
On the day of his birthday, we dropped our seven-year old boy at his aunt and uncle’s house and said we had to take care of something, but it was a surprise, which we surprisingly got away with. We drove to an animal shelter in Glen Cove, still planning to meet the pretty black and white cat.
I wanted to get new cats before the new dog showed up, because I thought that cats should have the territory well-established before the dog moved in and started hassling them. They would need to train the dog. And notice I said “cats”. Ideally, I wanted to adopt more than one cat, but I have no good reason why. Keep in mind that we still had two elderly cats, who at this point were keeping mostly to themselves. We knew they wouldn’t put up any sort of fight no matter what sort of animals we brought on to their turf.
But a call ahead to the folks at the shelter suggested that Sunny Cat might not work out. She was almost two and she had been at the shelter since being brought in with her siblings from a golf course as a kitten. Somehow, all her siblings had been adopted and no one had fallen for her, and she was well into a career as a shelter cat. They didn’t think she’d do so great sharing space with a young child, never mind old cats and a dog. She lived in a cage, but she was allowed to wander around and make conversation with various dogs and cats in the shelter. We met her briefly, already having sort of talked ourselves out of her, pretty as she was, and they let her out of the cage to go make the rounds.
In the cage next door were two three-month-old brown tabbies that had not been listed on petfinder.com yet, stalking each other and play fighting and having a grand old time of it all. I’ve always liked brown tabbies. They’re cool-looking cats. And what seven-year-old boy wouldn’t love two kittens to play with?
But there was a rub. One of the kittens was male, and Trisha didn’t want a male cat because they tend to destroy everything in their path and make pests of themselves. On the other hand, we didn’t want to separate them, as they seemed to be having so much damn fun together.
So we took a walk around the shelter, including a room where they kept the older “lifers”, which was sort of like the Island of Misfit Cats. We found ten or fifteen we were ready to take home before we pulled each other the hell out of there. Trisha decided we could adopt the two brown tabbies, and she couldn’t have been more right about the male cat, but we’ll come to that later.
We walked back up front where the people behind the desk and the brown tabby kittens in the cage were. (They had really stupid names which we’ve both since forgotten. The kittens, not the people). At the moment we were telling the kittens that they were going home with us, Sunny Cat came bounding up to us, onto a box where she could meet us at eye level, looked us both straight in the eye and said, resolutely, “Meee-owwww!!!”, which was cat for, “you came here to rescue me!!!”
We had no choice. The animal shelter folks told us they would waive the adoption fee on Sunny (so named because she liked sleeping in sunny spots, and still very much does) if we took all three cats. We dumped the two kittens in one of the two crates we brought with us, and a young fellow at the shelter put on thick leather gloves to grab Sunny and throw her in the other one.
We looked at each other as if we were completely insane. Trisha said, out loud so she could hear herself say it, “this gives us five cats.” One of the rescue people said, “I have twelve!”. We loaded the crates in the back of Dan the Van and headed home.
Trisha and I have a favorite movie. We’ve watched it more than 50 times and quote lines from it 20 times a day. That movie is David Lynch’s “The Strait Story,” starring Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek. It’s based on the true story of a 73-year-old man who drove a riding mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to see his ailing brother. Farnsworth plays the old man, Alvin Strait, and Harry Dean Stanton is his brother Lyle. We had just watched the movie for the 35th time the night before. We’re also big fans of Lyle Lovett. The brown tabbies who had terrible and forgettable names became Lyle Cat and Allie Cat by the time we reached the Long Island Expressway. In retrospect, Chaos and Mayhem would have worked as well.
We tried kicking around some new names for Sunny Cat, which at first we thought was kind of a silly name. We tried being clever with names related to pianos and other black and white things. But we realized that she was already a year and a half old and she deserved to keep her name, so by the time we reached the Southern State Parkway, we were ready introduce Jack to his new furry siblings, Lyle, Allie and Sunny.
The old girls, Bella and Jasper, were with us for the first six months or so of the madness that followed. They did what they could to pass on their wisdom to the young’uns. We made sure they were getting their share of the cat food and the attention until they didn’t want it anymore.
It was tough to see them go, which is one of the reasons that my sensible wife did not want to adopt new cats and go through the pain all over again someday. I could definitely see her point, but we all know that the joy that animals bring to our lives is worth the pieces that they gorge out of our hearts when they die.
We had planned and executed this daring cat rescue for the beginning of the week in February when Jack and I were on school vacation, which we would give me some time to acclimate everyone. We all have great mental snapshots of that week, starting with this one: There are two rooms upstairs at Duffy’s Creek. One of those rooms, Jack’s bedroom, has a separate door. The other room is accessed through the door at the top of the stairs. We let Sunny have that room and took the kittens behind the door into Jack’s bedroom to let them out of the crate.
Immediately upon being freed, they both crawled under the approximately two-inch space under Jack’s dresser because that’s what cats do, particularly scared ones. I don’t know why we couldn’t have foreseen that.
I reached my arm as far as I could and managed to grab hold of a kitten, but I didn’t know which one. Trisha reached way back and pulled out the other one. The one I pulled out turned out to be Lyle, and from that moment, Lyle imprinted on me and decided I was his mother, and he was my dog.
Lyle is actually several animals. As well as being a cat with freakishly long back legs and a Machiavellian complex, he is also, at the very least, a small dog, a meercat, a sloth, a vulture, a howler monkey and a cockroach. I’m pretty certain that Lyle was the runt of his litter, as he is expert at making his presence known and at manipulating me, his mother.
It started with coming to nurse every night when I went to sleep. I missed Jenny coming in to put me to sleep every night, so I was glad to have a new cat napping partner. But Lyle has to circle around and stalk back and forth for several minutes before finding the right spot to do a full-body flop as close to me as he can get. Then he’s got to dig his claws into me (which Trisha calls, “making’ biscuits.”) and purr ridiculously while he pretends to nurse. He usually sticks around for about fifteen minutes then goes off to stare intently at the spot under the stove where he has caught several mice, then comes back and settles in on my legs.
And once he realized that the potential existed for me to wake up in the middle of the night to pee, forget it. He trained me to put out plates of cat food for everybody at 2 am while the dog waited in the crate. If I didn’t wake up, he’d crawl on top of me and try to pry my eyelids open by scratching at them. And Lyle has the most deranged, intense stare of any cat I’ve known, so throwing him off the bed like some demonic sentient pillow only works so many times. He just pops back and stares at me vulture-like, ready to give my eyelids a fresh scratch if that’s what it takes. He’s at this moment working on his masterpiece of scratching, the ottoman in front of the couch. Lyle does nothing halfway He’s a sick bastard.
And yet he’s a sweet, essentially well-meaning little guy who walks around me and in front of me, like the cockroach in WALLE, always managing to just avoid being stepped on and/or kicked. Mookie has come to associate the words “idiot” and “asshole” with Lyle getting in the way or causing trouble. Right now, the large dog is lying on the floor, slightly jealous that the small cat dog is sharing the chair and a half with me, upside down with his back paws attached to me arm as I type. All I would have to do is say, “IDIOT!”, as I do when Lyle gets in the way, and they would immediately begin arguing, using sharp words like “grrrrrr!” and “hisssss!”. Fun as it is, I’ll let them be.
Mookie is much more patient with Lyle’s rotund and shy sister, Allie Cat. First of all, having struggled with a life-long battle to maintain his figure, he can relate to Allie Cat, whose short, stocky over-furry physique makes Lyle look like a Tabby Cowboy. Allie’s legs are as freakishly short as Lyle’s are long, so when she runs she has to double the amount of steps, which makes her look like a cartoon cat. But I wouldn’t tell her that because she’s very sensitive and suffers from low self-esteem. Allie went upstairs when Mookie came home and stayed up there most of the time for around three years. She only came back down and rejoined the family after Sunny assured her that he had the dog completely trained.
While Mookie, Sunny and Lyle shadow me pretty much all the time, more so as we get closer to the times when the cans open, Allie stays in a little cat bed behind the loveseat until lunch, then goes back for a quick four-hour nap, at this time of year under the Christmas Tree skirt, whereupon she joins me up on the couch for “Jeopardy” after dinner, making sure she gets her daily minimum requirement of pets and scratchies. Mookie defers to her and doesn’t try to get in between us, and if Lyle tries to move in, Mookie tells him to stop being a needy little pain in the neck all the time by stomping his front paws back and forth and saying “grrrr.”
Allie imprinted on Jack the most as a kitten. He’s good friends with everyone on four legs here, but you can tell when he gives Allie some attention that it means a lot to her. It’s hard to get that attention when your dog brother is enormous, you cat brother is batshit crazy and everybody thinks that your older cat sister is perfect.
Sunny, God’s Most Perfect Cat, is at this moment sitting inside a cardboard box – in a sunny spot on the floor- because it’s there. And no doubt thinking deep thoughts which she will never share. But her default location is wherever Trisha is. While I’ve pointed out to Sunny many times that I was the one who had the idea to rescue her, and that Trisha didn’t want any more cats at first, and that I was the one who sat with her upstairs more often for the first couple of weeks so we could bond, Sunny wisely figured out from the start that one of the three humans in this house was softer, calmer, more nurturing and better smelling than the other two, and that’s the wagon to which she hitched her star. If Trisha is in a comfy chair, Sunny is often curled up next to her.
Which is not to say that Sunny and I don’t get in some quality time together, because we do. (As far as me and Trisha, God knows we try). Sunny enjoys the fact that I’ll be the last person on Earth who gets a physical, printed newspaper delivered to his house. There’s a guy I’ve never met who has been dropping an expertly wrapped addition of Long Island’s Newsday in the same spot on my front lawn at around 4 a.m. every morning for 18 years, and he did it for my parents for years before that. Insanely expensive as it’s gotten, I’m still not ready to give it up. So every non-working morning (which right now is all of them) begins with twenty minutes of sitting on the couch scratching the dog and flipping through the Newsday.
This twenty-minute block often stretches into a half hour when Sunny decides to come up and visit, first rubbing her head on Mookie’s ear, then walking back and forth across the newspaper on my lap while I pet her, for as long a time as she deems appropriate or necessary. If she decides to sit down on the newspaper, I am to wait until she gets up before I continue reading, and that is that. After a couple of months of this I figured out that she liked newspaper because that was the floor of her cage for 21 months. I’m a little slow sometimes. But Sunny is an excellent human trainer as well as an excellent dog trainer.
She’s a beautiful cat. Jet, silky black with deep-set eyes that only open as much as they have to (giving her a bit of a stoned cat look), white whiskers and a white patch that starts under her chin and stretches down her chest, with another patch of white on her belly and back legs and front paws that look as though they were dipped in white paint.
I don’t know if it helped that she was good looking, but Sunny was the cat who trained Mookie to appreciate and respect cats. In his puppy year, he spent the majority of his time in one room in the back of the house, which we separated from the kitchen with a gate. When our five cats came into the kitchen to eat, you could imagine the excitement and frustration of a Labrador puppy who can only stick his head through the cat door of the gate and watch as other carnivores devoured a meat like substance, and who has been instructed by God not to bark. It was Sunny who first came over and gave him a little sniff, to which he gave her a large sloppy sniff, which she seemed to enjoy. She would always stay back and they’d gaze into each other’s eyes, like Bowie’s heroes at the Brandenburg Gate.
Once the old girls had left us and gone over the Rainbow Bridge and Mookie got the run of the first floor, we moved the Brandenburg Gate up to the top of the stairs, with the cat door open so they could have a place to escape when they had to, in spite of the fact that they tell you not to install those gates at the top of the stairs because somebody could get killed. Lyle had already perfected the art of finding places higher than Mookie could get to, and of giving him a good whack in the snout if he stuck said snout where it didn’t belong. But then Mookie can scare Lyle by just reminding him of how tremendously big he is, and how tremendously small Lyle is in comparison.
Being an idiot, Lyle has been drinking out of the dog’s bowl his entire life, trying to grow big and strong like Mookie, but it hasn’t worked. They’ve had a nine and a half year codependency, gargantuan size vs. claws, speed and attitude, with each one vying to be the alpha dog, but both acutely aware that this ongoing battle gives them something else to do when they’re not watching me eat chicken.
But Sunny didn’t need her claws to train Mookie. One day (I was there when it happened) she left East Berlin and met him at the bottom of the stairs, and before he could start bouncing up and down and doing his big, floppy Labrador routine, she looked him dead in the eye and declared, “Yoooouuuuu Staaayyyy!!!” And he did as he was told. She understands positive dog training, because she routinely tells him, in her cat language (which, like English, he understands but does not speak), “that’s my good doooogggg!” After a while, she let Allie know the coast was clear and they both left the attic for good. Allie finally had a dog friend, and God’s Most Perfect Dog was able to add “very well-behaved around cats” to his already impressive resume.
As I wrap up this chapter, we’re well into the ninth month of Pandemic of 2020, soon to be the Pandemic of 2020-2021, as all indications point towards things getting worse before they get better. My current responsibilities include driving up and down New York State Route 22 when necessary and staying out of the way of my wife and son as they do real work remotely when I’m here on the Creek. By virtue of first working remotely for four months and then not working at all for five and counting, I’ve spent more time in the house I grew up in than I have since before kindergarten, and at the same time I’ve been off Long Island more than in any year of my life. I’m on the Creek or on the Mountain, and that’s pretty much it.
In normal times, I’d be in heaven with all this time on my hands, as both Long Island and the Berkshires always have something interesting going on somewhere, if you don’t mind traffic and people. In these times, I leave to walk the dog along the creek or on the rail trail, I go out for groceries and other essentials, I come back to whichever home I’m in and I wait for this misery to end, always being aware that I could get sick and suffocate to death in a hospital no matter how careful I am so I don’t dare complain. Under these circumstances, It’s nice to be able to pet a cat when you can.
There are a couple of silver linings in all this, as painful as it is to admit. As a result of our rebooted lifestyle, which include long morning walks for the dog and bigger lunches for me, I’ve gained ten pounds, and Mookie has lost ten pounds. Really. As anyone who knows either one of us could tell you, these are both epic accomplishments. I also get more than enough sleep, which I also haven’t done since before kindergarten. Lyle still tortures me at 2 am when he can get to me, but Sunny has in turn tortured Lyle by taking over the bed during the day, available for a good purr if I can work a cat nap into my busy schedule.
I’ve seen some “funny cat stuff” in my rectangle scrolling these past nine months about cats being pissed off about their routines suddenly being disrupted by virtue of their people being home all day, every day. Not our cats. We like them, and they like us. Their goofiness entertains us, and their affection comforts us. And while they may not like being left alone when the Song of The Mountain calls, they don’t hold grudges when we come back to the Creek. But you can be damn sure they insist on extra rubbies and scratchies for the first few days. Especially Lyle.
And it’s funny, as comfortable as we’ve made the House on Trisha’s Mountain, the absence of our furry furniture keeps it from truly feeling like home. It’s the thing that’s missing. Of course, given the opportunity, they’d no doubt scratch the beautiful new furniture and they’d trail cat litter all over the house no matter where we put the box, but they’d love the view. And they’d continue to love us, and we’d love their company.
Meanwhile, for as long as this thing goes on, nobody in our family is going out to the movies. But at least if there’s a movie playing on TV on Duffy’s Creek, everybody gets a cat to curl up with. Even Mookie.
Sunny will be 12 years old next year. Lyle and Allie will be 11. I don’t know if we can make the same promise that we made to the old girls when they moved here at the dawn of this Century and we told them they’d never have to move again. I can tell you that if these three cats have to move, they won’t like it one damn bit, and I’m sorry in advance for a day that comes when we have to put them through it. I’ve seen what it’s like to be an old cat, and it ain’t for sissies. I suppose we compensate for the guilt by spoiling the hell out of them now.
But you what? They deserve it. Yeah, they lie around and sleep most of the day. But they appreciate us, and we appreciate them. They count on us to take care of their physical needs and we count on them to help us out with our psychological needs, which sometimes means having something else to think about besides how screwed up everything is. Hey, look! Allie’s getting high on catnip again! Lyle and Mookie are having a staring contest! Sunny is keeping her svelte figure in shape by doing zooms back and forth through the house! While it’s important to stay on top of current events, watching your cats living their best lives is ultimately a much better use of brain space than wondering about who may have just tweeted a bunch of dangerous lies, or how many people were packed into wedding in Brooklyn, or why going bowling might kill you.
The day is going to come when we can start crawling out from under this weight on top of us, when the world will be open and safe again. But for now we’re in survival mode. And with a little help from our feline friends, our unsung furry heroes of Duffy’s Creek, we’re doing what we can where we are with what we have.
They really do want me to stay in Valley Stream. As a matter of fact, they’ve spent millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements trying to convince me to stay. And they know I have a soft spot for the old dump.
I can only tell them three things right now:
1) It all looks great.
2) I’m flattered.
3) I can’t promise you anything.
On a related note, hurricanes are way, way up on my list of scary things. Tornadoes, fire, cancer, car accidents, crazy people, snakes, Republicans, lightning. No particular order. There are scary things that enter your consciousness in an instant, and you have no time to think of how scary they could be because, well, there they are. You can only reflect back on how scary they were in retrospect. We’ll put snakes and crazy people in that category. But hurricanes, they creep up on you slowly. They mess with your head. They scare you silly, then when they leave, they say, “you know, I could have REALLY kicked your ass. Maybe next time, punk. Good luck.”
Anyone who has lived through a hurricane and doesn’t have permanent psychic damage as a result is either very, very stoic or very, very stupid. “Superstorm Sandy” hit Long Island on October 29th, 2012. Why “Superstorm”? Why? Well, I know why. It was October and the hurricane met a cold front. That’s why they called it that. It’s an actual meteorological term. Still. “Hurricane” would have been just fine. “Superstorm” sounds like what a three-year old or a TV news writer would’ve called it. But I digress.
The most ferocious part of the storm hit at night. Trisha and Mookie went up to Jack’s room in the attic to and the cats took the other room in the attic, all to maybe sleep and/or to silently freak out. Jack was eight years old at the time, but he’d already experienced Hurricane Irene a year earlier, and he knew the best thing you could do was cuddle up with your mom and your dog and let Dad do what dads do, which in this case was to stay downstairs to monitor the situation.
Hurricanes mess with your head. When Craig Allen, the WCBS Newsradio 880 weatherman, told me around 9 p.m. that the storm surge at Battery Park at high tide was 14 feet, I knew that tide, and that storm surge, were coming, through Jamaica Bay and right up Duffy’s Creek. I was pretty confident that it wasn’t going to be 14 feet, but I also didn’t how high would be enough to submerge the first floor of the house, or how fast would be enough to knock it off its foundation. 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, the water kept on rising higher and moving faster. I could hear it gushing into the cellar. At some point the broken garage door blew open, but at that point, I was too busy listening to the sinister glub glub glub sound emerging from the floorboards, so running around and picking everything I could off the floors became my first priority. At some point in the 11 to 12 hour, I looked out at the backyard to see that the water had completely submerged the three and a half foot high post and rail fence, and was just about up to the height of the windows, and the plastic playground set was careening wildly around the yard like a ship lost in a storm at sea.
It was at this point that I asked my mom for help, as she had just died two months earlier and I was raised Catholic and I really didn’t know what the hell else to do, besides continuing to throw towels down on the kitchen floor. And whether coincidence or divine intervention, I looked out the back window again just a few minutes later and saw the tops of the fence posts.
The aftermath was what Saint Joan herself would’ve called “a goddamn mess.” One smart thing I did was move Dan the Van and Buster the Fit up to higher ground on the hill at the end of the street in the parking lot of Valley Stream South High School (aka “Big Brick”), where I found them blessedly dry the next morning. Our neighbors’ cars were all wrecked. We didn’t have anything stored in the cellar, ‘cause anything down there had already been thrown away after the less-destructive Irene a year earlier (which got into the cellar but not the house). But after ripping up 20% of the wall-to-wall carpet and throwing out 75% of the contents of the garage, after seeing way too many of our shrubs, roses and perennials transformed into corpses, after having to rely on the kindness of relatives (who no longer live on Long Island or are no longer living at all) for heat and electricity for the better part of ten days, after reading about the destruction in every town between us and the ocean and realizing how stupidly lucky we actually were to have no more than three inches of water infiltrate the house, I now have a healthy dread of every little “X” off the coast of Africa that shows up on the NOAA Hurricane Central website, which I check each and every morning from June until November.
About a year and a half after Sandy, I heard about the New York Rising Reconstruction Plan, and about a meeting wherein members of the Mill Brook Civic Association and representatives from a consulting firm called Louis Berger Inc. would explain how they intended to spend South Valley Stream’s share of the State money. $3 million big ones. This is where my complete lack of faith in people comes in. I went to the meeting expecting them to tell me that they wanted to build a big concrete bulkhead all along the creek, piss off all the wildlife and further the degradation of my little paradise into an open sewer. I figured I was the only one who knew there were herons and kingfishers and sandpipers back there, and that nobody really gave a rat about the neglected old pedestrian path, hidden from our view by fifteen-foot tall phragmites, which are actually called woozy-woozys if you’re one of Francis Duffy’s children.
And then I met Niek.
Successful people amaze me. From reading Niek’s Linkedin page, I know the friendly, well-dressed Dutch gentleman I met at that meeting in 2013 is a civil engineer and environmental impact planner, a landscape architect, a transportation and stormwater specialist who helped to rebuild lower Manhattan after Sandy, never mind Duffy’s Creek in South Valley Stream. By contrast, I drove back and forth on the Belt Parkway for 25 years and tried to get teenagers to read and write and think big thoughts, mostly by pretending to follow the orders of people who insisted that they knew how to do it better than I did. A noble profession, of course, but I sort of feel like my kind are a dime a dozen compared to people with Niek’s level of expertise.
The meeting was at Forest Road Elementary school in Mill Brook, which used to be called Green Acres, which is technically not my neighborhood because I’m on the other side of the creek. Everyone who attended got a look, through pamphlets and power points and pictures blown up and hung on easels, of the plans for storm resiliency in South Valley Stream. Color me blown away. No concrete bulkheads. Lots of organic storm protection through a natural shoreline with native plants and green infrastructure. Exactly what I would have proposed if I were as smart as Niek.
The Mill Brook Civic Association was chosen by New York State to represent the area, because there is no other active civic association in Valley Stream. The guy who was president of the association at the time took an instant dislike to me, among other reasons because I was from the wrong side of the creek and I had the temerity to ask pertinent questions and volunteer relevant information. The other people from the Civic Association who I met were wonderful, but this guy didn’t want me around. I later found out that he did that to a lot of people for no particular reason, so I kept showing up at the meetings, mostly because of my vested interest in the project but a little bit just to piss him off.
I think he was particularly pissed off that Niek and I hit it off so well. When I told Niek that I had counted over 100 bird species on and around Duffy’s Creek in the ten years I had been back there (which is the truth), Niek lit up. He told me that he had grown up along a river in the Netherlands and had begun watching and counting bird species as a boy. This put a great image in my head that’s still there. Then he asked me if I had written down all those species, and I told him I sure had. Then he told me that New York State was allocating an extra $3 million big ones (a “race to the top” thing) to communities that could demonstrate that their projects would have a positive impact on the environment, including habitat for native flora and fauna, and could I email him that list, and I said I sure could.
At a few subsequent meetings of the Green Acres Civic Association that I insinuated myself into, Niek’s people were there to represent Louis Berger. The next time I saw Niek himself was about a year later, after New York State announced that South Valley Stream was among the winners of the extra $3 millon big ones and the final plan was being introduced to the public at Forest Road School. Niek recognized me and came over and shook my hand and thanked me. He told me that my bird species list had been extremely helpful, if not critical, in winning that extra money. I was as pleased as punch, as happy as a lark, for the contribution that I had made to my community and my bird friends, and because Niek thought I was cool.
The guy who didn’t like me, his name is at the top of the South Valley Stream New York Rising Community Reconstruction Plan, published in March 2014.
I wrote down the names of birds in a spiral notebook.
This is why my Linkedin page sucks.
But I’m pretty sure my friends over at the Town of Hempstead Department of Engineering were able to use some of that extra $3 million big ones to raise the street I live on six inches higher. So you could say I ultimately took care of number one..
It certainly took a long time for it all to come together. The next time there was a meeting to tell everybody what was going to happen, Niek had moved on to his next adventure, the guy who didn’t like me had moved to Cedarhurst, and the meeting was being conducted by the chief engineer of the Town of Hempstead, who turned out to be the brother-in-law of one of my high school friends. I didn’t recognize him at first, as he was wearing a nice suit and I had only ever seen him wearing a Jets jersey. But that’s one of the perks of living your whole life in the same town. Ask George Bailey. You end up knowing a lot of people and a lot of people know you. And if you behave yourself, you end up with a lot of people on your side.
From my new-found friend of a friend, I found out all the particulars of the creek path reconstruction, how there was going to be lots of native plants and trees, just liked Niek had planned, plus all sorts of engineering tricks aimed at flood-prevention, like a footbridge over a large oval-shaped spillway covered in eelgrass that’s designed to take in tide water and soak it up like a sponge. Plus they worked in an osprey nest, which in my informed opinion is too close to people to ever attract ospreys, and a kayak ramp, though I’ve only seen two other people kayaking in the creek besides myself and Jack. Still, the whole project was like they had sat down and begun planning by saying, “what would Duffy do, if he were smart enough?”
And if that weren’t enough, I found out that Jedwood Place, on my non-Mill Brook side of the creek, was going to be torn up and rebuilt six inches higher, with new gas lines and storm drainage underground topped off by shiny new sidewalks, curbs and asphalt on top.
The reconstruction of the path started with some little red flags in the ground in October of 2018. Six years after Sandy. There was a lot of “well, they’re never actually going to follow through on this stuff” talk at our house during those six years. Mostly from Trisha. But the big machines came in November and they cut down a few giant trees and ripped out all the woozy-woozys, which was tough to watch, but you’ve got to break a few eggs to make real mayonnaise, now don’t you?
Over the winter and into the spring, we watched the plan come into action. They raised the whole path about four feet. They “terraced’ the bank of the creek with big logs of compressed dirt (which I’m sure Niek and the Town Engineer know the technical name for) and they planted all the pretty little shrubs that we planted years ago when we learned about going native: Rosa Rugosa, Red-Twig Dogwood, Inkberry Holly, Sweet Pepperbush aka Summersweet, plus new Maple, Dogwood and Oak trees to replace the ones they killed. They built the footbridge over the spillway, and a platform overlooking the creek where the path bends around towards Forest Road. They lined the whole thing with hunky rocks. They installed brightly illustrated educational signs to teach people about the birds and plants and flowers they’re looking at, and miraculously, no idiot Valley Stream kid has marred any of them with graffiti yet. Although the original plan called for a path surface that soaked up water, they ended up going with asphalt, probably to allow police cars to access it, which considering how many idiot Valley Stream kids there are, was probably a smart trade off.
In the summer of 2019, the construction in the backyard wrapped up as the construction in the front yard started. Without the woozy-woozys, we now had a front row seat in the backyard to people enjoying the brand-new path along Duffy’s Creek. Oddly, because they’re higher in elevation and because we have a lot of flowers in the way, we can see them, but they can’t really see us, which is kind of like watching your neighborhood park on a live webcam. Meanwhile, out front, National Grid came in and replaced all the gas lines under the street, then left it not unlike the surface of the moon.
Then of course, in March of 2020, Trump broke the country, and everything closed down. The big construction work on the street was supposed to start as the school year was wrapping up, but as soon as Big Brick closed its doors for the Pandemic, the New York Rising sign with Andrew Cuomo’s name in 28-point type went up and the guys from Allen Industries of Amityville came in, with bulldozers, front loaders, excavators, backhoes, flatbeds full of concrete and the big pick-up trucks they commuted to work with. As we were all working from home, we got to watch the whole thing. I hardly minded the various inconveniences involved (noise, dust, no driveway, etc.) as I knew it was all for a greater good, and because I was in awe of how hard these guys were working every day, especially since I had it relatively easy.
A side note: There’s a silly You Tube video in which a marmot chipmunk appears to be yelling “Allen!…Allen!…Allen!” over and over again. Maybe you’ve seen it. Trisha started walking around saying “Allen!” in the chipmunk’s English accent every morning when the guys showed up. By day three or four, we were both doing it. One of the secrets to happiness is to marry somebody who’s good at starting inside jokes. Here it is for your enjoyment, until they catch me and take it down:
The head guys, Mr. Allen himself and the rest, became like friendly neighbors with big machines and power tools for the four months they were here. They were guys we saw every day when we stopped seeing all the other people in our lives every day, so there was something weirdly comforting about their presence. And when it came time to tear up our driveway, they had to also tear up part of the curving inlaid slate walkway up to the door. We all had a meeting wearing masks on the on the front lawn where I watched them brainstorm how to take it out and put it back in without damaging it, which they ultimately did flawlessly. Plus we got brand-new sidewalks and most of a brand-new driveway, which was a couple of thousand big ones that we won’t have to spend on curb appeal. They even replaced the grass they ripped up with sod, but it got hot and dry out in June and the homeowner kept disappearing with his dog for a week at a time, so despite a valiant effort by Mr. Allen and the brand-new fire hydrant, the sod all died. Still, it’s the thought that counts, and we’ll always have fond memories of the guys from “Allen!”
And then a day in July came when Mookie and I rolled back into town from Copake Falls, the construction vehicles and the pickup trucks were all gone, and everything was done. A brand-new, six-inch higher asphalt street, sewer grates twice the size of the old ones and beautiful new curbs and sidewalks (albeit lined with dead sod). And out back, people who couldn’t really see me were enjoying a stroll or a jog or bike ride along my creek, where thousands of yellow Black-Eyed Susans were in bloom at the same time all the yellow daisies in my insane patio garden were doing their thing.
Isn’t that nice?
At the end of “The Princess Bride” (if you don’t know, I can’t help you), Inigo Montoya compliments Fezzik the giant for finding four white horses with which the heroes can ride into the sunset together. Inigo says what I said when I looked around at my newly rebuilt neighborhood:
“Fezzick! You did something right!”
Fezzik answers, “I’ll try not to let it go to my head.”
I’d like to think I had a little something to do with helping this whole thing happen, but I’ll try not to let it go to my head, because it probably would have happened exactly as it did if I had just stayed home and kept my bird list to myself. Still I’ll always have that image of a little Dutch boy counting birds as he walks along a river, and I’m proud that I could help out the birds who’ve enhanced my life so much, ’cause God knows they can use every little bit of help they can get.
As far as storm resiliency, the last hurricane that scared the bejesus out of me blew through in just a few hours in August, just after the construction was completed. That was the unpronounceable Isaias, that actually hit Long Island as a tropical storm. We were on the right side of the eye this time, which meant less rain, but it also meant ferocious, relentless winds that messed with my head for six hours, and has left me with further psychic damage. It remains to be seen how the re-engineered Duffy’s Creek will respond to a major rain event, and if I’m lucky, and I am a lot but not always, I’ll never find out.
Meanwhile, as we were all trapped in our neighborhoods by the Pandemic in 2020, nice weather came around just the same, and the seasons changed and the natural world went on as always, because nature doesn’t really care less what happens to us and would probably prefer that we all die at this point. And as the nice weather came around, so did people in masks desperate to get the hell out of their houses for a while. And the beautiful new “Mill Brook Park” gave them somewhere to take the dog for a walk, teach their kid to ride a bicycle, push a baby stroller, jog resolutely along with very serious faces or just sit on a bench and enjoy the pretty little winding creek along with all the plants and the ducks and the swans and the herons and the egrets and the osprey and the kingfishers. I’m sure more than one visitor to the park never knew how nice it was, and though our one-way mirror of flowers, I was proud to watch my creek get the recognition it deserves.
So to Andrew Cuomo and the Mill Brook Civic Association and Niek Verhaart and his team and the Town of Hempstead Engineering Department and, of course, “Allen!” and every single construction worker who put his or her back into rebuilding my neighborhood: I don’t know how much longer I’ll be hanging around here, but thank you for making South Valley Stream somewhat more tolerable in the interim, and thank you for respecting my creek.
You did something right, and you should all be very proud of that.
Oh, and also, thanks most of all for ratcheting up the property values.
If you decided, for some strange and indefensible reason, to drive from the bottom to the top of New York State in a straight south to north direction, starting at Kennedy Airport and ending at the Canadian Border, at two points in the first half of your pointless journey, you would be just a couple of miles from my house. I can’t say for sure whether I’d be home. Or home. But if I am, please stop by. We don’t get many visitors these days.
And if you chose to take the scenic route on this silly excursion (and you may as well), you would also get to know New York State Route 22, which runs 337.26 miles from the Bronx almost to Quebec, and parallels the borders of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont. One stretch of this mostly two-lane road runs about 60 miles, from Brewster to Copake Falls.
That stretch is mine.
Between myself and Trisha, plus one run from a friend with a van (who stopped at Brewster Pastry to buy us a Danish that couldn’t be beat) we did twenty round trips from Valley Stream to Copake Falls in the first six months of owning a second house, logging around 4,000 miles, back and forth, back and forth, hauling, among other things, three air mattress, a four-seat dining room set, a complete set of curtains with bear and deer silhouettes, a 12-Cup Mr. Coffee, eight lamps, six framed pictures, four patio chairs and a matching table, a set of silverware, plates and bowls, a portable firepit, two window fans, a space heater, a TV and the stand to put it on, a microwave oven, two air conditioners, a dresser, two nightstands, five end tables, a set of fireplace tools, two rugs, a shower curtain, a shower head, two strings of party lights, a desk and chair set, seven folding chairs, two toilets, a combination pool table/ ping pong table, a convertible couch, a copper rooster wind vane, a dog crate with two dog beds and a new kitchen sink, so don’t even bother saying it, ‘cause we did.
I knew those miles of Route 22 pretty well before. Now, either way I’m traveling, north or south, it’s the street that goes to my house. So while the other chapters in this book will either be somewhere around my house or somewhere around my other house, in this chapter, I’m going to take you on a ride, and hopefully show you what makes this stretch of road so interesting and so unique. But you have to promise to want to learn things that you really don’t have to know. And I have to hit you over the head with two-thousand words of backstory first.
Now, as anyone who has traveled north to south from Upstate into New York City and Long Island knows, the experience is kind of like sitting home watching this nice show about farms and trees on TV and BANG! Suddenly a bunch of stormtroopers break in and grab you, throw you behind the wheel of your car and force you to drive while they torture you for an hour and a half. (“Faster!” “Trooper!” Slow Down!” “Watch Out!” “Move Right!” “Move Left!” “Stop!” “Now Crawl, Mother#%&er!”). They slap you around with psychopaths in monster trucks, people in very old Japanese sedans merging from ten-foot-long entrance ramps for the very first time in their lives and lightening-flash traffic jams on the Hutch, and right before they release you, they threaten to throw you off the Whitestone Bridge.
On the south to north route, you can sort of keep your dignity as you’re being tortured, knowing that no matter what they throw at you, you’re going to make it to that country road that takes you home.
Just watch out you don’t get killed first.
Had I known how much necessary driving I’d be doing now, I might have done less unnecessary driving when I was younger, but that unnecessary driving is how I wound up with a house upstate in the first place.
When I was young and restless, in my mid-twenties and living on the creek with my parents, I used to like to just get in the car and go. I had nobody to go with, the upside being that I could go wherever I wanted. But once off Long Island, I would always go north, or north then east. My family went to the Adirondack Mountains every summer when I was a kid, so that had a lot to do with it. Plus, I’ve always just plain old loved Upstate New York and New England, and the chance to explore the next new route and the next new town. If asked where I was planning to go on these trips, I’d say I was driving to Massachusetts for a cup of coffee.
That’s because the first time I did this, I decided to take Route 7 through Connecticut and Massachusetts up to Bennington, Vermont, then turn around and go home. It was October 1987, and I wanted to look at the leaves in color, because I lacked any real ambition. Plus, I wasn’t smart enough at the time to check the weather forecast, because I picked a cold, rainy, grey day, though I did learn that the fall leaves do have their own special charms and their own special smell on days like that.
I left at six in the morning and decided to stop (in the pouring rain) at the Sunrise Diner in Sheffield, Mass for breakfast around 8:30. The diner occupied a cape-cod house smaller than my house in Valley Stream, and it was packed solid for breakfast. A little digging revealed that the Sunrise Diner operated until around six years ago, and it closed still looking exactly as it did in 1987. It was one of those places you’d find in The Land That Time Forgot.
And I guess they didn’t get a lot of out-of-towners, as the entire place went stone silent when I walked in, like they had been talking about the poor, pathetic single guy driving aimlessly up Route 7 in a Honda Civic and someone said, “Shhh!!! He’s walking in!”
I didn’t want to take up a whole booth for myself, so I sat at the end of the counter and I smiled in polite acknowledgement at the people who weren’t smiling back at me. The man behind the counter, tall as a tree, bushy moustache, glasses, plaid shirt, well-worn jeans with suspenders, he smiled at me for all of them, and he said the magic word:
I love coffee more than just about anything. People on Long Island say, “cawwffee.” Something about the way this gentleman said “caahffee” made it sound somehow like it would be better coffee than cawwffee.
So I said yes, please. And it was excellent caahffee. As good as any cawwffee I’d ever been served on Long Island. I ordered scrambled eggs and sausage with what I thought was a side of hash brown potatoes, but which turned out to be a gigantic side of corned beef hash. With everyone still staring at me, I felt compelled to eat all of it. It was the best corned beef you could possibly ever imagine.
And that was my introduction to Berkshire County, Massachusetts, as well as to hospitality New England style. We’ll serve you up the best breakfast you ever had, but don’t expect a hug. I could totally get with that. And it was the beginning of a day of happy little discoveries along the road that I could file away for future reference.
I drove on through Great Barrington and my first impression was that I could live very happily in a place like this. And this was 32 years before the first legal weed store opened next to the Price Chopper twelve miles from my upstate front door. Stockbridge looked just like the Rockwell picture, even though it wasn’t Christmas. I would’ve stopped at Alice’s Restaurant, but I was still high from the corned beef hash. Even Pittsfield, as apocalyptic as some if it looked in 1987, had Waconah Park, the oldest professional ballpark in the country, where the Rookie League Mets played back then. And above Pittsfield (which looks a whole lot better now) was Mount Greylock, which I came back to climb, but which you can also drive to the top of and get a hot dog (and a cup of caahffe) when you got there. You can’t beat that.
I did make it to Bennington on that first trip, also a beautiful little town, with a cool 306-foot tall obelisk, The Bennington Battle Monument, that I also came back to climb when it wasn’t raining.
I told as friend of mine about the trip later. He said, “Dude. You really need a girlfriend to do this stuff with.” But more solo trips were in my future before I ever found one. One I could keep, anyway.
Sitting in my parents’ attic that winter, staring at my old Rand McNally Atlas, I planned a route to circumnavigate New York State. It was fun to plan, but the reality set in that this was a journey of close to 1,200 miles, so I scaled back, and decided just to travel up Route 22, which parallels “Big 7” on the New York side, just to look around. It was the Spring of 1988, and I still didn’t have a girlfriend, so off I went.
My first stop on Route 22 was about 60 miles up from Interstate 684. I pulled off on Route 344 to look around Taconic State Park in Copake Falls. I liked waterfalls, and I wanted to see one. I stopped in what appeared to be one of the only two commercial business in town (the other being Bash Bish Bicycles). It was a denim blue building with deep red trim around the windows that looked as if it had been built many, many upstate winters ago. The sign outside indicated that I was about to cross the threshold of the Depot Deli, unknowingly for the first of thousands of times.
I bought something, don’t know what, and I asked the girl about my age behind the counter how to get to “Cop-A-Key Falls.” She was very patient about correcting me, though I was embarrassed just the same. (It’s “Co-payke”). She also explained to me that there was no such thing, and what I was looking for was Bash Bish Falls, which was down that way about two miles.
So I walked out of the Depot Deli having made a complete ass of myself, but it all worked out, as the girl about my age is now my neighbor three mailboxes down North Mountain Road.
The Depot Ddeli as it looked when I found it.
The Depot Deli as it looked when I found it.
Bash Bish Falls is a glorious place, though in the summer you have to beware of the droves. One of the first things I bought for the upstate house was a framed print of a painting of Bash Bish called “Rocky Pool”, painted in 1856 by John Frederick Kensett, who was a Hudson River School guy. We also have a small painting of the falls by an artist friend of ours whom we met while she was painting a mural on the walls of the Depot Deli. So like a lot of people, my love for Bash Bish runs deep. It was early spring the first time we met, and I had it almost to myself. I don’t know how long I sat on a rock and stared that day, but I know it was longer than I can usually sit in one place. I’m sure I was getting all dramatic and philosophical sitting there by myself, maybe musing about where the path my life was on would ultimately end up, not realizing I was soaking in it.
Rocky pool by John Frederick Kensett
My neighborhood waterfall
I filed Copake Falls away that morning and pressed on with my absurd journey up 22. I went as far as Hoosick Falls, where I passed a sign telling me that Grandma Moses was buried nearby moments before I passed a bar in a two-story-porch house with a giant Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” logo hanging on the railing of the upper porch. I thought I might start looking for work up this way. I hung a left and headed over the mountains and across the river at the Collar City Bridge in Troy, on the way to annoy some friends in Albany before going back down to the torture chamber.
When Trisha and I met, eleven excruciating years later, I soon found out that even though she was more of a beach and ocean gal, she loved the Upstate vibe as much as I did. I don’t know who brought up Copake Falls first, but it was like one of said, “you know Jesus? I know Jesus!” And she had an ace up her sleeve that I didn’t know about. She had booked a cabin in Taconic State Park months before and was planning on going up into the woods to celebrate her birthday by herself three weeks from then. My kinda gal. Then she had to figure out what to do with the new guy, so she said screw it, and she asked me to come along. I thought about it for a millionth of a second.
She drove. Even though riding shotgun brings out every OCD tendency in my sad little brain, she wanted to drive, and I didn’t want to blow this thing. It was after work on a Friday and we had to be at the park by 9 pm in order to check into the cabin. So of course, I had to mansplain that driving straight up Route 22 was more direct than taking Interstate 84 eight miles west to the Taconic Parkway, then heading 8 miles back east again. Plus 22 had lots of places to stop and eat, and I was hungry.
So since she didn’t want to blow the whole thing either, we drove up 22, stopped for dinner at Karen’s Diner in Patterson and arrived 15 minutes late at Taconic State Park, before cell phones, where we found Melissa Miller, who stuck around and waited for us because she thought we might have just gotten caught in traffic. Today Melissa is second-in-command at the park, and I will always be indebted to her for the fact that we didn’t have to sleep in a Dodge Daytona that night because I needed a cheeseburger.
The Dodge Daytona had as name. Her name was Chelsea. (And yes, apparently she had a gender as well). All our cars have had names because Trisha insists on naming cars, which I think is just adorable. Over the twenty years of renting cabins in the park, we drove up Route 22 (which she ultimately did admit was the faster route, if you didn’t stop at any diners) behind the wheels of Chelsea, Nameless (the Civic that I was driving when we met, which she named Nameless because it had no name, nor gender), a Honda Accord Sedan passed down from my parents that I named “Whitey” because I had to name it before she did, and Buster, the Honda Fit that ultimately replaced Chelsea, and is currently our son Jack’s learning to drive car.
Now we have two Subarus, ‘cause we’re annoying: Trisha’s Crosstrek is a female named Jessie, and my Blue Outback is a guy named Lou. Lou the Blue Subaru. I’m sorry.
Lou replaced Dan the Van. Dan was a 2001 Ford Minivan that we bought when Jack was a baby because we convinced ourselves that we were going to have a second baby which we never did, and that we needed a vehicle big enough to carry two babies and all their belongings to Copake Falls. Dan was very comfortable, with captain’s chairs, sliding doors on each side and lots of other little bells and whistles, but he was nothing but trouble. Trisha would say that Dan was trying as hard as he could, and it wasn’t his fault he was a Ford.
Among the many things that inexplicably broke on Dan the Van was the windshield wiper motor. Not having a good go-to local mechanic at the time, I took him to a local Ford dealer, who replaced the windshield wiper motor, thanked me for my patronage and sent me on my way.
Fast-forward to our summer week in the cabin at Taconic State Park. Driving up 22, Dan develops a little cough, and is struggling on the hills. I’m a little concerned, but we make it OK. And this time around we’re bringing so much baby stuff for just one baby that Trisha is driving up solo in Chelsea.
And as would happen in some years when we only had a week in the cabin, it rained and it rained. And as it rained, Dan coughed more. I had been planning to take a Sunday Morning drive up a very steep mountain to eat blueberry pancakes with complete strangers at the annual Austerlitz Historical Society Blueberry Festival, because it’s there. But the forecast was running about 40% for drenching Columbia County thunderstorms, and I was afraid that Dan wouldn’t be able to handle it.
On that Saturday afternoon, I was shooting the breeze with the woman who was working the counter at the Depot Deli, one of Copake Falls’ oldest and most esteemed citizens. I told her about my dilemma, and she answered with one of my all-time favorite lines. Interpreting the crux of the problem as one of my not wanting to drive in a storm, this is what she said: “Well, John, that’s not the Country Way!”
I had to admit, it was not.
Of course, the Country Way starts with being able to diagnose and fix problems in your own damn car. That went without saying. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to get stuck in Austerlitz just for a plate of blueberry pancakes (though I had to weigh both sides). At the end of the very rainy week, I gave Trisha custody of the baby, said a prayer and headed down 22 driving a very sick minivan with comfy captain’s chairs, the Suburban Way.
That trip was the first time I looked at every stretch of road between Copake Falls and Brewster in terms of what it would be like to be stuck there for days and days. Believing that your vehicle will die at any moment really gives you a new perspective of place and distance. I have permanent psychic damage from this trip, but it was also the day when I sort of “took ownership” of that sixty-mile stretch of Route 22.
As for Dan, we miraculously made it back to Valley Stream, and the hidden blessing that followed the tragedy of missing the pancakes at the Austerlitz Blueberry Festival was meeting our man Pete, the new mechanic who had just opened a shop around the corner. Pete is the kind of guy who seems like he stays up at night worrying about your car. He has bailed Trisha and I out time and time again, the most spectacular example being last July when Lou the Blue Subaru blew his transmission (as Pete warned me he might) while carrying two kayaks, three people and all their stuff and one very confused Labrador on the Adirondack Northway enroute to Saranac Lake, leaving us stranded in Queensbury, New York, 217 miles from Valley Stream.
The good news was that the transmission was under warranty, and there was a Subaru dealer right nearby, the only one for hundreds of miles. The bad news is they were the only Subaru dealer for hundreds of miles, and they suggested that I might be eligible for Social Security before they’d get around to looking at my car. We rented a van (ironically) to get to Saranac Lake and then back to Long Island.
Enter Pete, the man who had years before determined that the mechanic at the Ford Dealer had not installed Dan the Van’s new windshield wiper motor correctly, and that the poor thing was coughing and sputtering from the water gushing into the engine every time in rained. This time, Pete called his brother who owns a fleet of tow trucks, who in turn sent a young fellow with a flatbed on a 435-mile round trip to rescue Lou the Blue Subaru and transport him to the Gregoris Subaru Service Department in Valley Stream, who fixed him in time for the next trip to Copake Falls in August.
And the people at Subaru Corporate were besides themselves with heartfelt regret about the whole business. Knowing full well that they sold me a CVT transmission that would break if I did everything with the car that they said I could (kayaks on the roof rack and all that) they not only paid for the new transmission, they reimbursed me for the rental car, and, inexplicably, sent me one of the those fancy Dyson cordless high-power vacuum cleaners, along with a little note of apology asking if we could still be friends.
So me and Lou, we’re all right now. Pete keeps us on the road, and we’re never more than a week or two away from “doing the drive” between Valley Stream to Copake Falls. The first half of the 117-mile trip is on parkways, the Cross Island over the Whitestone Bridge to the Hutchinson River Parkway to Interstate 684, where I always thank Dwight D. Eisenhower for knocking at least 45 minutes off the trip.
The second half of the trip starts on Route 22 in the Town of Brewster. There has been an ongoing and very entertaining debate over the years about where exactly Upstate New York starts. The official New York State version is that Upstate starts where commuter rail service to New York City ends, which on the Route 22 Corridor would be at the Metro North Station in Wassaic, about 30 miles south of Copake.
Trisha believes that Upstate starts at Exit 8 on 684, which is Hardscrabble Road in Croton Falls, just south of Interstate 84 and on the Westchester- Putnam County Line. Why? Because where else but in Upstate New York would you find a place called Hardscrabble Road in a place called Croton Falls? It’s a likely answer to: Quick! Make up a place that sounds like it’s in Upstate New York!
And the family from whom we bought our Copake Falls house owns and operates a tree farm that stretches along the valley in our front yard, and when the trees grow up, some of them go to the wholesale distribution center, the Hardscrabble Nursery on Hardscrabble Road in North Salem.
So it’s hard to argue with my beautiful wife on this point, as it is on most points because she’s always right. But I’m allowed to think what I want, and I think that Upstate New York starts just a little north on 22, at The Red Rooster Drive-In in the town of Brewster.
Back on Long Island, there’s a place in Massapequa Park called The All-American Burger. If I’m anywhere near it and I have the time, I have no choice but to stop for a Double Double (double burger, double cheese), fries and a milkshake. It is the best fast food on Long Island, quite possibly the world. Like All-American, and myself, the Red Rooster was first established in 1963, and all three of us have a classic, retro look. The Rooster was originally a single A-frame, with red and white stripes leading from a giant ice cream cone on the roof. A year or two ago they added an indoor dining room with a giant cheeseburger on the extension roof. A big happy white rooster with a mescaline smile, wearing a red and white checkered chef hat and matching apron, greets you warmly at the front doors (despite knowing you might get a chicken sandwich), and there is lots of outdoor seating alongside the kiddie playground and the miniature golf course, which features a smaller version of the same Rooster, along with Pinocchio, the requisite miniature golf windmill and an ersatz Porky Pig.
Rooster Burgers are pretty good. Damn tasty, actually. But they’re approximately 70% of the size of an All-American (single), and just not of the same caliber. Plus, you seem to be paying for the Red Rooster Experience as much as for the food, which depending on how hungry you are, is almost worth it. I’ve never seen anyone really unhappy there. You’ll go away fed and the chocolate shake will get you to Copake Falls.
Brewster is sort of the last suburb of New York City going up 22. But in a little section of the green space behind the Rooster, there’s an area set off with rocks with about 15 headstones called the Sherwood-Minor Burial Ground.
If the local burger joint has a 19th Century cemetery behind it, you may be in Upstate New York.
The six-year-old in my soul longs to putt golf balls through the windmill, but Lou and I press on. We’re a little beyond halfway to Copake Falls, Lou is purring along, my blood oxygen level is rising, and we’re about to check on the state of things along old 22.
There’s one more humongous shopping plaza in Brewster, set way off the road up on the top of a hill like a Greek city-state. Then things really start “Upstating.” The area around 22 for the next thirty miles is part of The Great Swamp, which is exactly what it says it is, filtering the water that flows down to the massive reservoirs that supply New York City’s drinking water. So traveling along through Putnam County and into Dutchess County, first we’re in the swamp, then we’re surrounded by more shopping plaza city-states near the village of Patterson, then we’re in the swamp again, then we’re in Pawling, then back to the swamp for a while, and then we’re in Dover.
And here’s something else: The stretch of New York State that straddles the Connecticut border is called The Oblong. When the border was first proposed between New York and Connecticut as twenty miles east of the Hudson River, the people in the towns of Greenwich and Stamford insisted that they had to remain part of Connecticut, whiny little bitches that they are. So Connecticut got a “panhandle” consisting of 761,440 acres. In return, the entire border of New York was moved 1.8 miles west, creating what was officially known as “The Equivalent Lands”, but which came to be known as The Oblong because of its shape.
Lots of people drive my stretch of Route 22 without knowing that they’re passing through The Great Swamp, or that they’re traveling along the western edge of the Oblong. It doesn’t matter to them. They still get from here to there without knowing or caring about the nature or the history around them. Theoretically, we could all spend our short time on this Earth only learning what we think we need to know. None of the information I will share with you about the towns and landmarks that we’ll pass from here on is the least bit necessary to know to get from Putnam to Columbia County, and what I can tell you only scratches the surface of what there is to know. But to me, that’s exactly why it’s worth knowing.
Case in point. Unnecessary Fact #1: In fifty-eight miles, we will pass four Kingdom Halls, in Brewster, Pawling, Dover Plains and Millerton, plus a massive 670-acre headquarters of The Watchtower in Patterson.
This may not be enough to get your attention. But of course, the wonderful thing about living in the age of information is that you dig up completely useless information like this: The Watchtower in Patterson pours oodles of money in the surrounding community to make up for the fact that they have gobbled up a huge swatch of tax-exempt property. They have established the reputation of being very good neighbors. According to an article I came across in the Warwick Observer, the Patterson Town Supervisor sometimes asks the Watchtower folks to put the cows out in the pasture on Friday afternoons “for the tourists”.
So now you know two more things: The Patterson Town Supervisor is a marketing genius, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have cows.
You didn’t need to know this, of course, but see how much more fun it makes the trip?
It gets better: On a hill across from one of the Brewster City-States, you will find a brown building called the Ski Haus (spelled out in Old English-Style letters). They’ve been in business for 57 years, not only selling and renting skiing equipment but also selling kayaks, bicycles and Adirondack outdoor furniture. Apparently, they will even rent you a vacation house in Vermont.
Approximately 12 miles up the road, you will find The Shed Haus, which is actually a log-cabin style house surrounded by an acre of model backyard sheds on display. Hundreds of them, so it seems. Up until three years ago, the Shed Haus was the Shed Kingdom. This sets off layers of curiosity: Was the name “Shed Kingdom” a deliberate attempt to tap into the Jehovah’s Witness market? Were the people who took over and renamed the business “Shed Haus” deliberately trying to cash in on the success of the Ski Haus? Or was it a complete coincidence? Did it occur to the Shed Haus people that once you bought your skiing equipment, bicycles, kayaks and outdoor Adirondack furniture at the Ski Haus, you would need a Shed Haus to store it all in over the winter? And If the Ski Haus and the Shed Haus were both meant to conjure up the pre-colonial Dutch history in the region, why did they use the German word for house and not the Dutch word “huis”? I could understand that a business that wanted to get you excited about skiing would choose a name that sounded like something in the Alps, rather than in Brewster, but what is the connection between Germans and backyard sheds?
Sometimes the questions are more interesting than the answers. But I have to leave it at that, because we’re heading into Pawling.
Full disclosure: I have soft spot for Quakers. For one thing, I have a 96-year-old uncle in California, son of Irish-Catholics Immigrants, who has been a Quaker for 75 years. But while I’m drawn to Quaker ideas about pacifism and human rights, I could never work up that level of commitment, although I had started going to St. John’s in the Wilderness Episcopalian Church in Copake Falls before the Pandemic ruined everything. I hope to come back vaccinated someday. The Episcopalians are sort of the halfway point on the Religion-O-Meter between Catholics and Quakers, and that’s good enough for me.
Pawling Quaker Meeting House
Akin Free Library in Pawling
Among the things I didn’t really need to know about Pawling, New York is that it was first settled by a Quaker who wanted to get the hell off Long Island. Nathan Birdsall was a surveyor from Oyster Bay who had once cut through the woods from Danbury, Connecticut to Pawling, assumedly to have a good story to tell. He later found out that the land in the Oblong was being sold by the State of New York and he sprang into action, gathering up Quakers from Long Island, Connecticut and Rhode Island to purchase several 500-acre plots of Oblong which became Quaker Hill.
The Quakers of Pawling outlawed slavery in their community in 1776, fifty years before the rest of New York State. Plus, they refused to do business with slaveholders, to the point where they used maple syrup instead of buying imported cane sugar. As conscientious objectors, they accepted George Washington and his Continental Army commandeering their meeting house during the Revolutionary War, but they stayed out of his business. (Acknowledgement to David Levine at HV Mag for this information).
The first time I tapped into this history was when I realized that I passed South Quaker Hill Road, Quaker Hill Road and North Quaker Hill Road in the space of four miles, so I looked on Google Maps to find that it goes way, way, way up, makes a big horseshoe, then comes way, way down. Then I looked at the Zillow real estate ads to find that there’s probably not a whole lot of living simply to please God in the $2 million-dollar houses for sale way up there. And there’s also an Old Quaker Hill Road, where you’ll find the original Meeting House and the Akin Free Library, a bizarre stone Georgian-style building with an ornate copper dome which houses a museum of Quaker artifacts, as well as a natural history museum in the basement, which according to the beautiful Atlas Obscura, features “oddities like meticulously scribed 19th-century shop ledgers, a first edition of The Hobbit, utopian Quaker pamphlets, a shrunken head, snake skins, hundreds of taxidermy local birds from 200 years ago, Native honed seashells, a giant moa egg, fetuses in jars, and spoon handles swallowed by a local mental patient.”
So it goes without saying that a visit to Quakerland in Pawling is on my bucket list, along with a visit to Daryl’s House.
Daryl’s House is just up the road past the Appalachian Trail. It used to be called The Town Crier. It’s now a bar/ restaurant/live-music venue owned by Daryl Hall of Hall and Oats. While I wasn’t a huge Hall and Oats fan, Trisha and I became big fans of his “Live from Daryl’s House” TV series, wherein he invites musicians to his actual house somewhere in Amenia or Millerton (or both) and he performs with them along with his kick ass “house band” (a phrase that takes on a whole new meaning in this case). Daryl Hall is truly a gifted singer, something you wouldn’t necessarily know from listening to bubble-gum pop songs like “Private Eyes” and “Maneater” (sorry, Daryl, but really) and he was able to let loose there in his big old restored colonial house, thus proving to skeptics like myself that he is a major talent, has great taste in music and was selling out to make money all those years, successfully so.
At least he got mega rich without hurting anybody, if you don’t count earworm damage. Most of the time as we were watching “Live From Daryl’s House”, we’d be asking each other over and over how the hell this guy can look and sound so good as he closes in on 75 years old. I guess that’s where the money comes in. Still.
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Daryl’s House helped out the surrounding community by stocking and selling groceries and toilet paper. Anybody who loves the Oblong that much is all right with me. So I’d like to visit Daryl’s House to take in some live music one fine day. In the meantime, I always take a quick look in the parking lot as I pass by, just to see if he’s out there unloading his car.
One Kingdom Hall up the road from Daryl’s House, we pass the preposterously impressive campus of the Trinity Pawling School, massive buildings on a perfect hill one side of the road and a pristine athletic field on the other. Trinity-Pawling is an Episcopalian prep school for boys founded in 1907. Having spent 25 years as a public-school teacher and 13 years as a public-school student, I have no idea what’s it’s like to be up on that hill, never mind down on that field, so my mind immediately drifts to the only reference it has, which is the Robin Williams’ movie “Dead Poets Society”. Though I doubt if there’s a guy standing on a desk up there on that hill yelling “Carpe Diem!”, who knows? There might be. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that every one of the 6,000 alumni of Trinity-Pawling School was and is more comfortable wearing a suit and tie than I’ll ever be. Bless their hearts.
Our next stop on the journey north on Route 22 is Wingdale. There are people living happy, fulfilling lives in Wingdale. I have no proof of this, but I have anecdotal evidence. Not only is there a Pleasant Ridge Road (and how bad could that be?), there’s currently a house for sale with its own 10-acre lake created from a quarry from which came the marble used to build the U.S. Capitol. That house will run you $5 million. But if that’s out of your range, there’s a nice little 600 square-foot modular literally right around the corner you can snap up for $85,000. So it goes in the Hudson Valley.
For all the civic pride I’m sure residents have in their hearts for Wingdale, it just doesn’t have a whole lot of curb appeal as you travel along 22. And yet, it’s home to two internationally known businesses. This fact led to a fun little “when worlds collide” moment on my Facebook page last summer. It started when I posted a picture of the interior of the cabin I was staying in at Taconic State Park.
A woman I know through her extensive research about her native Valley Stream, who now lives just east of the Oblong in Kent, Ct, saw this picture and was convinced, “that table came from Hunt County Furniture in Wingdale!” Another friend, who I know from our time working in a supermarket 40 years ago, saw that comment and answered excitedly “Wingdale! Big W’s!”.
To which the woman responded, “What?”
I felt compelled to explain two things to Friend #1: First, The least expensive table at Hunt County Furniture will run you about $1500, and I don’t think that was in the state park budget, though it’s a very nice table, nonetheless. Maybe they made a deal for floor models.
Second, Big W’s is a barbecue restaurant in Wingdale that people travel from near and far to visit. Big W himself was an accomplished chef in New York City who moved upstate, bought himself a food truck, painted a smiling, slightly stoned pig face on it, rented a space on Route 22, installed a smoker and a woodpile under a car shelter and built himself a successful business. He later bought the deli next door to the truck and a made it into a small restaurant, with several smokers now housed in a prefab metal shed outside. He’s gotten rave reviews in The New York Times and Bon Appetit and no one ever has anything bad to say about him on Yelp or Trip Advisor. He was even featured on an episode of “Live From Daryl’s House,” wherein Daryl Hall takes the band down to Wingdale for the Big W’s experience.
Meanwhile, Hunt Country Furniture, handsome though it is, remains completely out of my league.
As you pass the Harlem Valley Metro North Station, things get very ugly very quickly. You are passing the site of what was the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center, originally Harlem Valley State Hospital. You are face to face with the meanest looking buildings you ever saw, a whole bunch of them, deep-brick three-story Georgian thugs with barred windows, standing along the road with their arms crossed against their chests, sneering menacingly as they look down on you through the eyes of all the ghosts who live there.
It was an insane asylum. From 1924 until 1994. At its peak, it had over 5,000 patients and employed over 5,000 people on 600-plus acres of grounds. It was also a village unto itself with everything from farm production to sewage treatment. If it’s in your town – a bakery, a bowling alley, a swimming pool – it was in Harlem Valley. You can still see the small grandstand and the baseball field from the road, not quite as creepy as the hospital towers, but still it looks like a perfect setting for the weirdest fucking dream you’ll ever have.
Also back there somewhere is a golf course that was considered so good that a developer bought the land to build an entire community called Dover Knolls around it, but he never got it off the ground. He instead sold the lands to Olivet University, a religious school owned by a Korean evangelist named David Yang, who then got in big-time trouble for exposing workers to asbestos as they began to illegally start rehabbing the buildings and had to pay his way out of it with a couple of million dollars he had in the till. But the good news is that Olivet University will let you come in and play golf there if you pay them.
I’m sure some good things happened over the 60 years of Harlem Valley State Hospital. I’m sure some people who really needed compassion were able to find some. It’s especially nice that there was baseball. But all I can think of as I pass through Wingdale on Route 22 are all the people who were forced to go to places like this in the first half of the 20th Century. What a God-awful existence it must have been to be kept at Harlem Valley against your will, with the train going by all the time like at Folsom Prison. (Thank you Virginia Repka-Franco for that awesome bit of imagery and other information I picked up from an article at https://classicnewyorkhistory.com/harlem-valley-psychiatric-center-testament-changing-times/). All the cupcakes and fresh milk in the world wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference.
The hospital was also at the “cutting-edge” of electro-shock therapy and lobotomy, so if you were one of those people who were sent there based on the 1920 definition of insanity, and you talked back, you likely ended up like Randle McMurphy. My mind does a mash up as I drive by, and I picture a young homosexual in New York City being declared insane by a judge, maybe a judge who graduated from Trinity-Pawling School and was ashamed at his secret feelings for his roommates. The judge commits the young man to Harlem Valley, where the electro-shock therapy accidently kills him. But no bother, they just bury him in the cemetery right there on the grounds, “The Gate of Heaven”, under a stone with a number instead of a name, to protect his family, who could just check the records to find the right gravestone, except that all the records were lost.
Or, they could have just left him the fuck alone, you know?
And of course, it’s not like the people who we trust to be in charge of things aren’t still making spectacularly stupid decisions. Case in point, about two miles up from Wingdale in the Town of Dover, we’ll drive past the 1,100-Megawatt Cricket Valley Energy Center, which recently went online despite New York State environmental laws that would shut it down in twenty years. While Hydraulic Fracking is banned in New York State, this monster was built to generate power from natural gas that is fracked in Pennsylvania and travels through the Iroquois Pipeline (what a disgusting thing to call it) across New York and into Connecticut.
The people who make money from Cricket Valley will tell you it’s clean energy, but it isn’t. It’s clean as compared to gnarly old coal-fired plants, but it still pollutes the air. The people of Dover who protested against it were also told that it would be a boon to their shitty economy.
This is from the Highlands Current:
In 2017, in exchange for not having to pay property taxes of $11.7 million annually, Cricket Valley Energy made a PILOT payment to Dover for $109,521. Under the same agreement, Cricket Valley Energy avoided $59 million in school taxes — its payment to Dover’s district was $552,559. Other taxes given up by the state and Dutchess County will total about $23 million.
Nice deal, eh? New York Governor Cuomo’s position was that it was already approved and in the works before all the new laws designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so, oh well, deal with it. He does that sometimes. Besides, the energy produced by Crickey Valley will power a million homes, so they say. And all those mega-rich non-Quakers back in Pawling need to keep their central air cranking, and look, Dover, we even paved the road for you!
I don’t need clickbait to tell me that I’m one of the people who are moving up to the Hudson Valley “in droves”, and we droves need to charge our cell phones. I’m part of the problem in this respect, but if it’s any consolation, we generate most of our power back in Valley Stream from solar panels on the roof. Of course, up in the Town of Copake, the fight over a 500-acre (!) solar farm that is also being forced down local residents’ throats is being waged as we speak, and as usual, the locals are losing. This whole goddamn civilization thing is pretty much unsustainable at this point, so we might as well keep on burning gasoline and head north while we still can.
Our next stop is Dover Plains. I have met exactly one person from Dover Plains to my knowledge. She is the branch manager of a bank, and in our one encounter, she was professional, helpful, knowledgeable and exquisitely groomed. To comment on the people I see walking up and down Route 22 in Dover Plains as a means of making some sort of statement about a place of which I really know nothing would be catty. If you judged Valley Stream based on the people walking on Merrick Road, we wouldn’t come out looking so great. I try really, really hard not to look down on anyone, because it’s too easy. You can always find someone who you are “better” than, but it proves absolutely nothing. I wish I had been born with this wisdom instead of having to have learned it by catching myself being an asshole too many times when I was younger.
This brings us to Oniontown. Literally on the other side of the tracks in Dover Plains is a road is now identified as Seven Wells Brook Road. It used to be called Oniontown Road. If you look this up on Google Earth, there’s no street view, but from the satellite view, you will see a long road lined with trailers, many with garbage strewn around them. (You’ll also see footpaths that go off into the woods, which is probably the creepiest part of all of this to me). Historically, it was and is an area of extreme Appalachian-style poverty and everything that goes with extreme Appalachian-style poverty. Articles were written in the 1940’s about the noble savages who lived in Oniontown with no electricity and had to defend their honor constantly against the people in Dover Plains who looked down on them. The story was that they were not only insular but had been inbreeding for generations.
When the first generation of suburban droves started creeping further up the Hudson Valley and reached Interstate 84, they gave birth to intolerable children. Some of those intolerable children decided it would be fun to drive down Oniontown Road at night and pretend they were re-enacting the Blair Witch Project by shining flashlights on the trailers and property of the residents, then posting videos on You Tube. Then these young, affluent cretins started getting their windshields and heads bashed in with bricks, which to me and many others was a totally reasonable response on the part of the people on Oniontown Road. Things spiraled out of control, of course, and it was great fun for all the You Tubers when the Dover Police Chief warned them to “stay out of Oniontown.” It was shortly thereafter that they changed the name of the road.
A writer named Aaron Lake Smith wrote a great piece of investigative journalism for Vice Magazine where he was able to get some of the Oniontown Road residents to open up about their experiences, not only with the misguided thrill-seekers driving up from the 84 corridor but with local Dover Plains people, especially their experiences in having to fight their way through school. It seems that while they were once ostracized for being inbred, now they’re targeted for being mixed-bred.
This area of Dutchess County has always been relatively poor, outside of the dude with the marble quarry lake and the post-modern Quakers. And maybe finding somebody to look down on becomes a more attractive strategy the less you have. But the suburban droves and the citiots can’t be bothered learning anything about the places they’re invading, or the people who live honest lives there, because it isn’t something they have to know to get where they’re going. And let me tell you, there’s a little war brewing up across the entire Hudson Valley between the locals and the citiots, and more bricks, at least figurative ones, will probably be thrown before it’s over.
But we need to shake all this ugliness off, don’t we? It’s been nothing but bad news since we left Big W’s Roadhouse. How about I show you some horses?
Just south of Dover Plains, we’ll pass by Lucky Orphans Horse Rescue, established in 2008 to provide shelter and rehabilitation to abused and neglected horses. According to their mission statement, They are also “committed to working side by side with the horses we rescue to help change the lives of people with a diverse range of struggles such as those suffering with addictions, depression, grief and loss, trauma, at-risk youth and improving relationships in families and groups.”
And since I told you about the Lucky Horses, I have to give props to another local organization. In Amenia, you won’t see the horses from the road (not even if you’re a tourist) but you’ll see a sign at the top of a hill for an organization called Godspeed, “a multi species Animal Welfare Service Rescue that provides food, medical, placement, and solutions to animal welfare problems, free of charge, to large domestic animals, farm animals, companion animals and wildlife.” They also facilitate cat spaying and neutering and support local pet food panties.
What wonderful things these people are doing. And this is one of the things about Upstate New York that I find particularly fascinating: A couple of acres of nasty scary ugly in one place is almost always juxtaposed by a couple of acres of unique charming beautiful in another place right nearby.
A long time ago, Trisha and I drove down Sinpatch Road in Wassaic to look at a house we saw on Zillow. I really have no idea what the hell we were thinking at the time, but it had something to do with a Metro North train to the city being right nearby. Of course, the train takes about two and a half hours to get to Grand Central Station, and I guess we hadn’t fully thought that one through. The neighborhood was “hardscrabble” to say the least. We’re pretty sure there was a guy living in a metal shed in the backyard of the house in question. A few people in the area had junk collections in their front yards which they may or may not have been proud to display.
And yet, right down the road is a place called The World Peace Sanctuary, which started with a man in Japan named Masahisa Goi who received the message “May Peace Prevail on Earth” after meditating on the devastation wrought on his country after WWII. He became known as a sensei, gained followers and began a movement to put up four-sided “Peace Poles” all over the world, with that message written in different languages on each side of the pole. This led to “Peace Pals International”, which encourages schools and youth groups to create peace poles. Plus, at the Sanctuary itself, they have a peace pole representing every nation in the world (so they say), where people gather to mediate once a month. And apparently, if you want to, you can ask for a mallet to ring the “Peace Gong” at the front entrance and send your energy out into the world.
Why, you ask, is a place that began as a reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the middle of nowhere around the corner from Wassiac’s Tobacco Road?
I have two answers for that: 1) I don’t know, and 2) Why not?
Welcome to the mysteries of the Hudson Valley.
We’ve reached the village of Amenia. It’s a nice little place, isn’t it?. The Four Brothers Pizza Restaurant, a chain that actually outnumbers the Kingdom Halls on the Route 22 corridor, opened a little drive-in movie theater a couple of years ago. It’s the kind of thing that lets a little town say to the rest of the world, “we have fun here.” Some beautiful old Hudson Valley architecture surrounds us as we roll through town. Of course, like all of this side of Duchess County, there are also buildings that are in such poor shape that it defies the laws of gravity that they’re still standing. It was while passing by one of those buildings in Amenia that I learned how to say “Please Curb Your Dog” in Spanish (“Por favor frener a tu perro”) from a handwritten bilingual sign taped to a utility pole. It occurred to me that this sign shared the same concept as the Peace Poles. May curbing your dog prevail on Earth.
Nothing much happens between Amenia and Millerton, but at this point, 22 emerges from a series of dark hollows through the Great Swamp and steps out into lush rolling hills and farmland. This is where we’ll find McEnroe’s Organic Farm Market. I’ll be devoting one of the later chapters in this book to all the wonderful places where you can get a fresh turkey sandwich within twenty minutes of Copake Falls, and you’ll learn a little more about McEnroe’s if you can stick around that long. For now, I have to tell you about a little bone I had to pick with them. A figurative one, not a turkey one.
For years and years, McEnroes’s enticed passers-by with a series of small signs on the side of the road with their logo (“McEnroe’s Farm Market” surrounding three happy little tomatoes) with a small rectangular sign titled at a 20-degree angle attached to each of the bigger signs announcing, in big block letters, “LUNCH!”. The last sign, traveling in either direction, had another sign under it that said, “OOPS! YOU MISSED THE FARM!”
On almost every day of my 25-year teaching career, my lunch was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I ate in ten minutes. I had completely forgotten that lunch could be a celebration. Why just have lunch if you can have LUNCH!? I was intrigued.
Seeing as it was only twenty minutes from Copake Falls, I finally made it down to McEnroe’s, and LUNCH! did not disappoint. But the very next summer whoever is in charge of those signs disappointed me terribly. In horror, I saw that they had replaced all the signs that said “LUNCH!” with signs that say “EATERY!”
Ok, they sell a lot of stuff there. Anything edible that can be grown organically as a matter of fact. So yeah, it is more than lunch.
You know what this is all about, right? It’s the citiots again. It’s the people who sneer at The Red Rooster and Big W’s Roadhouse Bar-B-Q, or think they’re all hip and in the know because, “Oh, look! I read about that place the Times! How quaint!” The ones who drive their Zip Cars from Manhattan to their ridiculous mansions up in Hillsdale to host fancy dinner parties at long picnic tables where the guys all wear pink polos and khakis and the women wear white dresses and floppy hats. The ones who drive into Hudson for art gallery openings on Saturday afternoon, maybe a tour of the local wineries on Sunday before they head back to the Upper West Side. The kind of people who would drive right by a sign that says “LUNCH!”, but slow down and say, “Honey? Let’s stop at this eatery!”
As one of the droves, I have to suffer for their sins. For one thing, I have to be extra nice and polite to everybody because I have a Long Island accent you could cut with a chain saw. In every encounter I have with a Columbia County native, I have to somehow establish implicitly (mostly through the simple rules of politeness) that I’m not one of them. I like LUNCH! Just like you. And I don’t need to go to no damn eatery to get it.
It’s not enough to keep me away from McEnroe’s. They have everything there. I have no choice but to forgive them for this assault on my sensibilities. I just wish they had left the signs alone.
Then again, up the next hill, at the exact 100-mile mark from my driveway in Valley Stream, there’s a green little restaurant called the Round III (I’m sure there’s a story there) that has been trying to entice me off the road for twenty years with messages like “Breakfast All Day! Apple Cinnamon Pancakes!” This summer, they’re pushing turkey cranberry melt sandwiches on that sign, so maybe I’ll have to step up and choose sides in this culture war over LUNCH!
Moving on, the farms get farmier and the rolling hills get rollier as we approach the Village of Millerton, where the area approaching the village along 22 is known as Irondale. This is one of the many places where iron ore was mined and cooked in giant furnaces in the 19thCentury. The hamlet of Copake Falls started out as Copake Iron Works. That whole story will get its own chapter later on, but in the meantime, I would just like to point out that “Irondale” would be a really cool thing to be able to say when someone asks you where you’re from. They’d sure think twice about messing with somebody who comes from a place called Irondale.
But I digress.
We are at the three-way intersection of 22 and 44 in in the village of Millerton. We’re at the top of the Oblong, right over the border from Lakeview and Salisbury Connecticut, where a lot of the “eatery” crowd can be found. A look to your right and you’ll see stores both hipster and practical lining the street going up to the top of a small hill. Downtown Millerton on 44 seems to have struck a nice balance between eateries and places to eat lunch, between the historic Hudson Valley and The Valley of The Droves.
If you happen to be waiting at a red light at this three-way intersection in warmer months and you look to your left, where the road isn’t, you will see a house on a hill surrounded by stunning perennial flowers. On the day after Tropical Storm Isaias, I “did the drive” from Valley Stream to Copake Falls to see if there was any damage to the house. (I could have bugged a neighbor who did some caretaking for us over the winter, but I figured if there were damage, she’d have her own to clean up, and besides, that’s not the Country Way). At the Millerton light, I noticed a woman outside the house, pulling branches out of the garden. There was no one else at the light and she looked at me and I looked at her, and I called up the hill to her, “I’ve been admiring your garden for twenty years!” And she smiled and thanked me.
On the way back that afternoon, I looked up again to see if she was there, since we’re friends now, but I didn’t see her. But that’s when I noticed the Peace Pole in the corner of her yard.
We’re in the homestretch now. A small hollow leads out of Millerton and the road begins to elevate. Out the window on your side of your car, you can see the Taconic Berkshire range start to rise across the farm fields. Up and over a steep hill and we pass the Willowbrook Farm (watching out for crossing geese). As we pass a sign welcoming us to Columbia County, we go up up up and the mountains have stepped onto the stage like the main act that the Great Swamp was warming up for. Alander, Frissell, Brace, Haystack, Bash Bish, Washburn and their somewhat shorter friends (including Sunset Rock Mountain in our backyard) forming a ridge starting from the corner where New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts converge and running straight up the New York / Massachusetts border to Vermont. When you’re up this way, the mountains are always with you, everywhere you go, friendly old giants sitting on their front porches, keeping an eye on the neighborhood, taking in the valley views while the clouds rolling by paint them a hundred shades of green. We are 110 miles away from Valley Stream, Long Island, and we’re on a different planet. It’s a view that never fails to take my breath away.
And you’ll notice that I’ve slowed way down so you can really enjoy this majestic mountain view, but it’s really because the stretch of 22 in Town of Ancram is one big speed trap.
We’re passing the AmeriStore Gas Station at the corner of 22 and County Route 3, and up ahead is the former Hill-Over-Holstiens Farm where I used to buy fresh milk in bottles in their little store. Sometimes nobody was in the store, and you could just help yourself to the milk and leave your money in the cash box. A lot of places still operate like that, but every year there’s one more story about some citiot who drove away from a farm with the money box. This particular farm, 391 acres, is for sale right now for $6.2 million. As with all the farmland for sale in the area, you can only hope that it is not carved up into more space for the droves.
Fortunately, the Town of Copake has a list of zoning regulations as long as the Appalachian Trail regarding what can and cannot be done in the “Scenic Corridor Overlay Zone.” on Route 22. And it’s remained a beautiful place, pretty much as I first found it in 1988, despite the local unrepentant asshole who has been polluting it for twenty years.
You know you’re coming into Copake when you see two things: Tom Hill, a little 892-foot high mini-me mountain that seems to pop right out of the road directly in front of you, and the billboard for Dad’s “50’s-Style” Copake Diner, which gets its own chapter later on. If you want to go to Dad’s, you jump off at Route 7A, where the little hamlet of Copake lies waiting. I’ll show you around a bit before this book is done. I may always be an outsider, but at least I’ve done my homework, and I defy any of the 3,500 residents of Copake Town to call this Lawn Guylander a citiot, even if I can’t fix my own car.
Right across from Dad’s billboard, back on 22, you’ll see a long red building set back from the road behind a very expensive looking stone wall. You’ll see that the sign on the building says, “Farm Market”. If you look closer, behind huge stacks of firewood, you’ll see that the Farm Market building is empty. This is because it’s a complete sham. If you look closer still, you’ll see bulldozers and payloaders, and a sickly-looking cornfield in the distance.
The guy who owns the 300 acres behind the Phony Farm Market has been dumping construction waste on his property for at least twenty years. His apparent strategy was to throw expensive lawyers at the poor little Town of Copake every time they tried to nail him for fragrantly breaking the law, and to a certain extent, it worked. He even built the Phony Farm Market without obtaining permits, along with building a steel bridge across the environmentally sensitive Noster Kill, which runs through the property.
Every time Copake hauled him into court, he’d pay his way out it, and with a big old jolly fuck you, he’d continue to dump polluted soil on his “farm”. Many good people in Copake spent many hours of their lives fighting this truly unrepentant asshole. All that effort spent on the disorder created by one guy in two square miles, but that’s just how they roll, isn’t it?
To their credit, New York State DOC finally stepped in and hauled the gentleman’s wiseguy ass into jail, where he has spent much of the last few years, but apparently the polluted soil remains, and it’s a safe bet that the dumping is still going on.
But the thing that amazes me most of all about this story is that the guy went to the trouble of building the Illegal Phony Farm Market building, seemingly to make the property look nicer from the road. It’s the only thing that makes sense, as everybody knows what he was really up to. On some level I think he was, like me, afraid of being considered a citiot by the locals.
Right before we take the Route 344 right turn into the hamlet of Copake Falls, we pass Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church. When Trisha and I first began our alternative existence up here, it was called St. Bridget’s. In 2009, St. Bridget’s merged with St. John Vianney in Churchtown to create Our Lady of Hope parish. In turn, St. John Vianney had previously merged with Holy Cross in Taghkanic and Sacred Heart in Philmont in 2005. So as you can see, the Catholics are going to have got to step up their game in the Hudson Valley, as they’re plainly getting their asses kicked by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
They’ve just about lost me to the Episcopalians at this point, and if you stick around, there’s a chapter coming up about a great little church in Copake Falls that Welcomes You.
In the meantime, with a winding climb up North Mountain Road, our 117-mile journey is complete. At Trisha’s Mountain, we’re going to bring the stuff in from the car, make a phone call and drive back down to Church Street Deli and Pizza across from Dad’s. We’re going to bring back some genuine Long Island-Style Pizza (not quite on the level Ancona’s in Valley Stream, but close) and later we’re going to drag some camp chairs down the driveway to watch The Show. You’ll see.
Speaking of The Show, it’s time for the next chapter, but I’ll wrap this one up with something I picked up from a Catholic priest at St. Bridget’s many, many years ago. (When they’re good, they’re very, very good). It’s one of my personal mantras, practical advice for any occasion, whether you’re discovering a new town or you’re driving through towns you’ve driven though fifty times, whether you’re stopping for a good old-fashioned LUNCH!, tending your garden, planting your Peace Pole or just sitting and watching the light dance with the mountains.
When they would get to the readings in the mass, the part where they tell the little stories, this is what the priest said:
“Let us be attentive.”
I’d have to go back and ask my old friend from the Depot Deli to find out for certain, but I’m pretty sure that, along with not letting the rain stop you and fixing things yourself, being aware of the nature and the history that surrounds you is part of the Country Way.
Here’s where it starts: At the very end of 2019, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the week when nobody does much of anything, my wife Trisha and I did something complicated, extravagant and totally unnecessary. We bought a house.
Everyone with whom we shared this news was ecstatically happy for us. Nobody called us stupid. Not to our faces.
I suppose if somebody had a problem with us buying this particular house, the problem would be that we already own a house, and the majority of people on Earth don’t own a house, and many don’t have a home, and now we have two. From that perspective, of course it’s clear that we didn’t have any damn business buying another house.
But we bought it anyway. We had our reasons. We think some of them are almost valid, but I’ll leave that to you. If you’re a capitalist, maybe you’ll say we’re smart people and we know what we’re doing and it’s not a problem at all so go ahead and enjoy it. If you’re a Marxist, you’ll likely call us out for the selfish pigs that we are. Fortunately for us, there are way more capitalists than there are Marxists, at least in our circle.
Trisha and I bought my parents’ house eighteen years ago in Valley Stream, Long Island, New York. It’s a little 1,300 square-foot cape cod-style house on a 60 x 100 plot of land. It’s cute. You’d like it. We grow a lot of flowers. The backyard overlooks a pretty little winding creek, the official name of which is actually “Valley Stream”, but people who don’t know me usually either call it Hook Creek or Mill Brook.
People who do know me call it Duffy’s Creek. Some, anyway. Because I asked them to. My parents bought the house in 1955, and I grew up there, the “baby” in a family of five kids. I never went very far, never changed my mailing address. I got married, came back, entered into a real estate transaction, had a son of my own, and began growing old right on that creek. The tide comes in and out from Jamaica Bay, and by the grace of God, I go right on living. It’s a nice story so far, isn’t it?
But here’s the thing: Three weeks after Trisha and I met on the boardwalk by the ocean in Long Beach, Long Island in 1999, we spent a perfect early-November weekend staying in a cabin in Taconic State Park at Copake Falls, in Columbia County, New York, a place we had both discovered independently, she from going to the annual Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in nearby Hillsdale, me from years when I would periodically get in my car and drive long distances because I didn’t have anybody to go to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival with. We lit a campfire on a crackling cold and clear Friday night full of stars, and on Saturday morning we hiked to Bash Bish Falls under Indian summer skies full of crazy blue jays hopping through orange and yellow trees yelling, “Stay! Stay! Live Here!” We fell in love with each other and we fell in love with the place. And for the ensuing twenty years, we returned there every summer and a couple of falls, probably logging about six months of elapsed time. Our son Jack has never known a year that didn’t include at least one week in Copake Falls.
“It’s like our second home,” we’d say.
But that wasn’t true. It just sounded nice.
So our home away from home stayed up there on the map and up there in our minds year after year as we continued to grind it out on Long Island. The sound of the blue jays and the turns in the country roads stood behind us, tapping on our shoulders to remind us what we were missing; the ancient mountains, the cleaner air, the bigger trees, the wide open roads, the farm stores and the church barbecues, the people who wave when they drive by, the absence of malls and chain stores (except for the Stewart Shop up in Hillsdale, which is perfect and cannot be criticized). I wasted hours and hours of my precious time here on Earth scrolling though Zillow listings.
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Copake Falls was an alternative reality. And as Valley Stream continued to get louder and louder year after year, summer after summer Copake Falls stayed mellow.
Valley Stream is a lot of things. Many of them are good. But “mellow” is not one of those things. A quick check for “antonyms of mellow” on Merriam Webster reveals “discordant, dissonant, grating, harsh, inharmonious, jarring, strident, unmelodious and unmusical.” I guess it would be harsh, maybe even unmelodious, to describe my hometown in these terms. But still, it sure as hell is not mellow, except in our backyard, and then only when our surrounding neighbors aren’t shooting fireworks or holding dance competitions. And if you want to see jarring and strident, live near a mall on Long Island during those seasons when people get in their cars every half hour to go buy more stuff. If grating and harsh is more what you’re after, listen to a Long Islander who has been inconvenienced.
Robert Frost came up with the line, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” It was such a good line that he requested it as the epitaph on his gravestone. As you might guess, Jean-Paul Sartre doesn’t have an epitaph on his gravestone (cool issues and all), but he sure could have gone with one of his best lines: “Hell is other people.”
People are what make a place more than anything. Or break it. There are rural parts of America and suburban parts of Long Island where I’m not too arrogant to say I wouldn’t be caught dead. People who are proud of where they live, wherever they might be, like to come up with slogans to promote their hometowns as places that other people might like to see, possibly even live in, because people spend money, and that’s what keeps places alive. Valley Stream once sold itself as “The Gateway to Suburbia”. Kind of a Dante’s Inferno thing really, but I suppose it was meant as a compliment at the time. The Town of Copake sells itself to this day as “The Land of Rural Charm.” That’s a good one, huh? I hope whoever thought of that at a meeting got the praise and recognition that they earned. But I could show you lots of uncharming rural places around town if I had to. And tell you about some less than charming rural people.
So In fairness to my fellow Long Islanders (and – whether they like it or not – my now-fellow Copakeans), let’s start with the premise that the vast majority of people everywhere, in every place with a name, are really all right. I truly do believe this. But sadly, as you know, while most people are wonderful, some people just suck. So it follows that if there are more people, more people will just suck. That being established, here are what I believe are the four basic groups of problem humans:
1. The Slightly to Extremely Dangerous: Those who have had hard lives or some sort of trauma and have decided than instead of nobility or faith, they will instead make it a point to project their hurt and anger on convenient targets they find around them. While this group of people have to be treated like walking landmines, as a child of God, one can’t judge them if one is not one of them and hopes not to be. I just try to stay out of their way and not to make things any worse for them.
2. The Insufferably Annoying: Those who have been sadly brainwashed by too much TV into thinking they are the star of their own little reality show, and thereby have developed a need to create drama and tension where none should exist in order to compensate for an otherwise tedious existence. Long Island is saturated with people like this, possibly because of its wealth. If your main problems are not the procurement of food, clothing and shelter, you really have no problems, so if you want some, you have to invent them. Ideally, it would help every one of them to be slapped silly, but violence is never an option.
3. The Head-Scratchingly Frustrating: Those who, for a variety of reasons, from deeply neurological to not getting hugged enough as babies, just can’t grasp the simple rules of getting along. They’re not particularly dangerous or overly dramatic. They just flat out boggle the mind. Ask anyone who’s ever worked in retail. But, as my father would have said, you can’t make their problem your problem. You can suffer fools gladly or ungladly. You’re still going to suffer fools.
Now, If you give people in these three categories the benefit of the doubt, and assume that in their essence they really just can’t help themselves, and they probably have many good qualities as well, that leaves us to grapple with the problems perpetuated and the damage done by Group #4, The Unrepentant Assholes: Those who live to purposefully and gleefully gain negative attention from the rest of us by being as unpleasant, uncooperative and self-centered as they can possibly be.
My personal sampling of the several hundred-thousand people I’ve interacted with in 57 years suggests that groups 1, 2 and 3 represent between 7% and 10% of the overall population. Maybe as much as 15% in higher-end neighborhoods. The Unrepentant Assholes in Group 4 are actually a very, very small percentage of the human population. I asked Trisha, and she said 2%. I was thinking three, but I’ll go with her answer.
There are 284.7 square miles of land in Nassau County, New York, and approximately 1,359,700 people call it home, making for a population density of 4,787 people per square mile, with all the people noise and chaos they generate. Bear in mind that there are large swatches of Nassau County where billionaires have reserved lots of land for themselves and their horses and their golf courses, leaving the rest of us to fight over what’s left. The population density of South Valley Stream is 7,583 people per square mile.
Traveling from Nassau County to Columbia County, you’ll pass Co-Op City in the Bronx, which has a population density of 47,000 per square mile. So really, I should just shut 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.
Francis James Duffy died early on the grey and rainy morning of Sunday April 26, 2020. He was a great guy to have as a friend, an even greater guy to have as my father.
As of two days ago, he was one of 120,000 people who have died as a result of the Covid-19 Coronavirus in The United States of America, 446,000 on Planet Earth. As you probably know, Long Island suffered unbelievable losses. Over 4,000 people have died from the virus in Nassau and Suffolk Counties alone. I feel like I’ve heard more ambulance sirens this year than in my previous fifty-six combined. For weeks in April into May, every morning brought three or four more pages of people, particularly grandpas and grandmas, ripped from the living, smiling above their names and the sad news of their departures in the Newsday Obituaries.
He was one of them.
Today is Sunday June 21st, 2020. The first full day of summer. Father’s Day. Francis has been gone eight weeks. Born at the start of the Summer of 1929, he would have been 91 years old tomorrow, June the 22nd.
Which means that this morning, in an alternate reality that didn’t include a worldwide pandemic, Trisha, Jack, Mookie Dog and I would have driven an hour and fifteen minutes east from the house my parents bought in 1955 (and sold to us in 2002) to the Jefferson’s Ferry Life Care Community in South Setauket, where they moved 19 years ago.
He would have been asleep in his wheelchair when we got there, and while he would eventually come around to the notion that he had visitors, he wouldn’t know who we were. But he’d like that we’d brought a dog. We would have wheeled him from the Memory Unit, down the long hallway, past the rooms of those he used to call “the inmates”, then out to the patio with the high maples and the oaks and the rock garden with the recirculating waterfall and the upscale outdoor furniture with the oversized umbrellas, the red corduroy chair cushions and the cool summer breeze.
And there we would have sat with him and there we would have tried as we always did to communicate with him through the darkened synapses of his advanced dementia. If we’d been lucky, he might have opened his eyes once or twice, and maybe light them up with his smile, a smile like no other. And more than likely, Mookie would have made that happen.
After his wife of 60 years died in August of 2012. I visited my father once a month. Usually it would be just Mookie and me, back out on the road at the crack of dawn on a Saturday Morning. It was exactly a 50-mile trip. We’d zip out before the Long Island traffic, east on Sunrise Highway, north on the Seaford Oyster Bay Expressway, east again on the Long Island Expressway to exit 62 , up Nichols Road to Northern Boulevard to Shep Jones lane, where we’d park in the Nature Conservancy parking lot for a hike through High Farms and up into Avalon Woods in Stony Brook. Then, fully born again, we’d head back down Nichols Road to 347 to Wireless Road to go see Grandpa. For me it was sort of like going to church and getting to physically kiss Jesus on the top of his head at the end of the mass.
Mookie made lots of friends over the years at Jefferson’s Ferry, and as far as we’re concerned, he was a working therapy dog when he was there. Now I don’t have the heart to tell him we’re never going back. Being a dog, He never stops hoping. And I don’t know about him, because, again, he’s a dog and he can’t tell me, but I assume he also holds those mornings with his grandpa as preciously in his Labrador heart as I hold them in my human one. Being the only one of us (I can only assume) who was aware that every one of those monthly visits might be the last one, I tried to stay in the moment as we three sat together, even as the man whom my dog knew as Grandpa slipped further and further away from us as the months turned into years.
Not counting Mookie, Francis J. Duffy was grandpa to eight people and great grandpa to five. He leaves behind a family of 26 people. And if not for the dedicated and wonderful people who work at Jefferson’s Ferry, he would have died alone, because the pandemic led to the prohibiting of visitors to nursing homes after March 15th.
The last day that Mookie and I made that trip was Saturday February 15th. And I knew it might be the last. I always knew that. Grandpa was getting closer and closer to that dreaded last stage of dementia, the vegetative state.
But never in a million years would I have guessed why it would be our last visit. I guess maybe I shouldn’t have been this naïve, but discouraged and beaten down as I’d been by the last three and a half years of news, I still actually thought that we had at least some scrap of a functioning Federal Government left, some bare system of oversight and protocol, accidentally left over from the Obama Administration, that would have had at minimum some shred of a plan in place to protect its citizenry from a national health emergency.
Instead, it’s 120,000 people dead and counting. And I don’t know who you think gets most of the blame, or who you think should take most of the responsibility.
But I have no doubt.
And so, while this blog post is first and foremost a tribute to my father, a great man in every sense of the word, I know that he would have wanted me to address the sons of bitches who killed him.
My pleasure, Francis. Stick around.
First though, I have to go on one of those long, wonderful tangents that Mom would go on, which as you lovingly pointed out, always started with: “To make a long story short…”
And I also need to explain something to you dear reader from the get-go: More often than not, I refer to my father by his first name, rather than “my father” or “dad”. I jumped back and forth between addressing him either way from the time I was a teenager. He eventually got used to it, and there’s a reason for it.
“Dad” and “Francis” are sort of a Yin and Yang in my mind: In the yin, my father, who taught me structure and self-discipline, optimism and faith; who called out all my bullshit, took care of me, worried about me, helped me out of jams and told me what a goddamn dopey bastard I was being any time it was necessary that I be informed as such. In the yang, Francis, the guy who was an absolute rip to spend time with, the guy who dove right into life whenever he could, and most of all, the guy who taught me the awesome power and potential of thinking for yourself, and the art of expressing those thoughts with style.
Now of course (to go on a further tangent), the name “Francis” often becomes “Frank”, and Francis actually used “Frank” as a sort of professional name, but my mother never called him that, unless she was among the people who knew him professionally. (Sometimes she’d call him “Frankie” with a dash of passive-aggressiveness, which was fun). Francis was his family name, the childhood name by which his Irish immigrant parents called him. “Frank Duffy” was his “stage name”. He had legions of fans as “Frank Duffy”, but more about that guy later.
For now, I don’t mind telling you that in my young and stupid days, my father and I took a long, long ride together on an emotional roller coaster. But emotional roller coasters have highs as well as lows, just like real ones. We had some real good times in there, too. And of course, rides on emotional roller coasters eventually end, just like rides on real ones do. And the first thing you do when it’s over is laugh. So let’s get all of what he would call “the silly shit” out of the way right now.
The fighting was both of our faults, really. It took a long time for both of us to figure the other one out, and I’m not sure if we ever made it all the way there, but we definitely reached a detente. There were things about me, as I began developing into the me that am, that he didn’t particularly like. Exhibit A: My younger propensity for being perfectly happy spending an afternoon strumming on a guitar, quite likely stoned (you dopey bastard) often along with a stereo that was turned up way too loud goddamn it. I suppose if he hadn’t wanted me to pick up on 60’s hippie culture, he shouldn’t have given me four older siblings. But there they were, and I was soaking up everything I saw and heard from them and from their friends. But for Francis, rock and roll, Marlboros and Cannabis, would forever be among things he associated with the rednecks he met in the Merchant Marines.
A side note (I can’t resist irony, even when it breaks the flow of my tangents): My second-greatest loss in the Coronavirus Pandemic (I hope) was the April 7th death of singer-songwriter John Prine. I never tried John’s songs out on Francis, but I bet he would have gotten a kick out of them. (I know he would have known the song “Paradise” from our annual three-week party at Camp Lavigerie it in the Adirondacks. It was practically the national anthem up there). But even if Francis could appreciate a song like “Fish and Whistle” or “It’s a Big Old Goofy World”, Dad would have written off Prine for his drug abuse and for his cavalier, good-timing lifestyle, which was of course, one of the reasons I loved John Prine.
My father didn’t much like anything that was counterculture, I suppose falling right into the whole point of counterculture, which is to piss off your parents. I think the thing he didn’t realize about Monty Python and the Grateful Dead, for example, is that they were actually great art, despite some of their fans. My mother got that, but my dad, not so much. We had to agree to disagree in the end. When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, Francis’ take was: “That’s a shame. Another dopey bastard that didn’t take care of himself.”
He also rightly called me out on a regular basis for emulating working-class kids in Valley Stream (“’you’ze?’ Are you kidding me?”), and it annoyed him that someone with his last name would dumb down to fit in. I know that he and my mother sometimes regretted the decision to send me to the Valley Stream Public Schools instead of Holy Name of Mary School and Maria Regina Catholic High School. We’d get into mighty battles when I was in high school, and he’d point up Jedwood Place to the Big Brick Building on the hill at the end of the street and say, “you got that shit from up there!”
And of course, whatever that shit happened to be on that day, I did, and he nailed it.
But one huge factor at the time was money, as my parents were paying for four college tuitions on civil servant salaries. Education was above everything, though, and my parents were going to give their five children the American Dream if it killed them.
Another factor that I’m sure entered into the equation was that my parents, especially mom, had grown politically more liberal than the church, though they never gave up on it. Ultimately, they saw my unrealized Formal Catholic Education as something could be redlined if they were going to balance the budget.
I’m telling you all this because when the dust started settling on my years’ long fight with my father, he told me once that in a way, I was the one of his five children who was the most like him. I actually couldn’t believe it when he said it. But Francis never lied, and he sure as hell never said things to make you feel better. I still think it’s my brother Thom. Nevertheless, I sort of knew where he was going with this notion. Francis and I did have a lot of personality traits in common. (Among them to this day, the habit of walking around closing all the windows in the house when waking up from a Saturday afternoon nap, purposefully making small talk with strangers, and a long, slow “wooooowww!” when confronted something unexpectedly good or bad).
But if he ever realized what I realized about the two of us as I was writing this, he never told me.
My parents met at and both graduated in 1948 from W.C Bryant High School in Long Island City. Francis joined the Merchant Marines and sailed all over the world straight out of high school while his future wife went on to the College of New Rochelle, run by the Ursuline Sisters. She then got her master’s degree from the Jesuits at Fordham. My two older brothers and two older sisters all had twelve years of Catholic School. All four went to Catholic Colleges at some point. I never went away to college. I chipped away at it for 14 years until I earned myself a master’s degree from CUNY Queens College. Francis got his bachelor’s degree from Pace University when he was 47 years old.
So Francis and I were the only public school kids, and the only night school kids. And maybe that made the two of us quicker on the draw, and a little less filtered.
While a more christian soul you’ll never meet, my father had an explosive temper, and I found myself on the receiving end a lot, but in fairness, only when I had it coming. Because it wasn’t displaced anger in any way. Yeah, he had a lot of pressure as a working father of five, but when he was pissed at me, it wasn’t frustration about money or work or anything. He was just pissed at me. I learned that It’s hard to hide from that, and harder still to defend yourself from somebody who is going to raise you right whether you goddamn liked it or not. As a father, as he always said, he was in business to put himself out of business.
And there were things about my father that pissed me off and frustrated me, and of course, when I was young and assholish I felt compelled to let him know all about these things on a regular basis. I could yell, too. I was like him, remember? But on one of these occasions, when I was way too old to be getting into these pissing matches with him, he said something that landed.
“You know,” he said, in his sidearm delivery, “I’ve made it. I’m a success. I don’t have to prove a goddamn thing to you.”
The gauntlet was thrown. I wanted to be able to say that back.
Which brings me around to why he’s Francis to me as much as Dad.
Dad always had the potential to erupt in that quick-tempered volcano of anger. He got loud, and it got old. If you left a storm door open for more than ten seconds between November and May, he would scream, “The HEAT damn it!” If you opened that same door for more than ten seconds between June and October, he would scream, “The BUGS damn it!” The yelling drove my mom nuts, but she yelled right back. And then he yelled some more. They were Great Depression kids, and they were Irish and they were from Queens and they were yellers. I don’t know about my brothers and sisters, but that was something I had to unlearn. I thought everybody yelled at their families.
But when he wasn’t Angry Dad, yelling about opening the wrong windows or mowing the lawn or getting the inspection done on your car three weeks in advance or stepping on the kitchen floor he just friggin’ waxed two hours ago, he was Francis.
And Francis was as cool as they come.
A guru, a great philosopher, a mind fertile with lightning-fast comebacks and one-liners, clever adages and common-sense wisdom that have stuck to me like barnacles. Francis could put you away in five words and you’d have no choice but to laugh at how fast he shut you up. He once tried to convince my brother Mike to buy a used car rather than a brand new one. (“For Christ’s sake! You’re paying for new!”). Mike told him he needed a car he could rely on. Francis came back smiling and snarling with: “Not me! I want a car that breaks down all the time! It’s exciting!”
Francis was fun to listen to and knew how to carry a conversation. Like my mom, and his mom and dad, and most of the population of Ireland, he told a great story. He had an artist’s eye for detail, especially with a camera in his hands. His game face to the world was that warm, twinkling bug-eyed Irish smile, a firm handshake and a confident laugh. He was a Dale Carnegie disciple who developed a magic ability to connect with people, a skill that made him hundreds and hundreds of friends (some of whom of course called him Frank). And not only that, he had friends of all colors, religions and persuasions. And while he couldn’t resist a wise ass remark about any given person it fell in his lap, he did not discriminate. He was an equal-opportunity ball-buster, but he was also a lot of peoples’ friend, and he took that obligation seriously.
And here’s another thing I can tell you: Francis found every way he could to love the life he lived and live the life he loved. I even saw this as a kid. He enjoyed waking up on a weekend morning and announcing loudly, “THANK GOD FOR A NEW DAY!!!”. And the older he got (until he hit the wall), the more fun he had. In his prime, he kept his deposition sunny, despite yelling about the mud you just tracked into the house. He never let life wear him down.
He loved his family and he loved his religion. He wasn’t a fan of taking shit. When we would get in fights amongst the seven of us in this tiny house, he’d quote Jesus and say “Love One Another!”, but he’d bark it in a loud, sharp staccato, as to suggest that if we didn’t shut up, stop annoying him and start loving one another immediately, it was going to be somebody’s ass.
I don’t think that’s how Jesus said it, but he well may have. No matter.
Francis Duffy was a template in how to live a life in which, as he said, he slept like a baby every night. He was faithful to the same woman for over 60 years. He always put his family first and earned every penny he made. He didn’t smoke, and he let me know I was a horse’s ass for doing so, but beyond that he didn’t preach. However, it was vintage Francis when he decided he had enough of my leaving extinguished cigarette butts on his property, picked them all up one day and left them waiting for me on my pillow.
He was not slimy nor duplicitous. He was exactly who he was, right in front of you. He never had to cover his ass because he never did anything wrong. He never needed a drink, though he’d enjoy one when he felt like it. (I can still taste the quick sip of Rheingold Beer from his German Stein when I was a wee lad). He managed to avoid the word “fuck” 98% of the time. He valued learning and expanding one’s horizons above all else. He especially disliked the “uncouth”.
He was honest, generous, straightforward, responsible and trustworthy. He was a grown up and a gentleman through and through. And all the while (and more and more as he got older) he walked through this world as comfortable in his own skin as in his myriad collection of L.L. Bean flannel shirts.
And this above all: He was not, as he specifically instructed me that I, as a Duffy, could not and would never be, “one of those ‘gloms’.”
I’m pretty sure he made that word up, but goddamn if I don’t know a “glom” when I see one.
You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a glom these days.
He yelled at me and threatened me as my father because he felt like he had to. He even said to me once in anger, “I’m not your friend. I don’t want to be your friend. I’m your father,” which was a notion I totally didn’t get and very much resented greatly at the time, especially since my mother always managed to be both my mother and my friend.
My mother loved my father and my father loved my mother, but my mother would get as frustrated as I would with his stubborn intractability, his impossibly high moral standards and his quick judgement on people who didn’t live up to them, me chiefly among them. One day when I was in my twenties we were talking behind his back and I hit on something that made her laugh and laugh, to the point where she had to fill him in on the joke later and we all three got a good laugh about it.
This is what I told her: My father has divided the world into two groups of people: Great guys and dopey bastards.
Ultimately, I became one of the few people, if not the only one, who crossed that bridge.
I don’t think he had to be as hard on me as he was, but in retrospect, there was no way for him to know that. I guess he didn’t realize that I was studying the Art of Being Francis the whole time he wasn’t yelling. And once he didn’t have to be my father as much, and I began recovering from assholism to the extent that he could finally put himself out of business, Francis and I became good friends, the way I’d always wanted it. And as I morphed from what my mother called “an old Irish bachelor” in my early thirties to a husband and father, landed suburban gentry, the guy who bought his house in Valley Stream, my father and I never had a cross word between us again, and we enjoyed each’s other’s company as I wished we’d always been able to. I spent his last twenty years going out east every four or five weeks to spend some time with my old friend Francis Duffy. And there were a few years there, in between Mom’s dying and his dementia swallowing him up completely, where he was able to get a few words in edgewise.
And while I am not him, and quite frankly (pun intended), not worthy to carry his legacy, and while to this day I still enjoy strumming a guitar and playing the stereo too loud, I’ve adopted a lot of his ways, and a lot of his ways of thinking. People say I’m more my mother’s son, but that’s chiefly because of the things I love, which she taught me to love. Vivaldi, Steinbeck, the Impressionists, stuff like that. Francis is more responsible for my game plan, for the way I show up in the world and what I say and do when I get there, not to mention how I talk about the world when it’s not listening.
As a matter of fact, once my wife got to know both of us pretty well, she pointed out to me that I was essentially “Stoned Francis”, an appellation which I wear proudly. Interpret this as you wish. I will say no more, other than to say that, as usual, she got that right.
And though I may be more flexible about who has to stand in which corner, I’ve come to realize that the great guys of this world (and by the way, the female equivalent is “smart woman” and the opposite of “smart” isn’t “dumb”, it’s “silly”), the critical thinkers of this world, the compassionate, the empathetic, the fair-minded, the educated: We are in a constant, never-ending struggle with the dopey bastards who want to take us down, mostly because we seem so much happier, and they hate that.
So in order not to let the dopey bastards win this round, settle back and let me tell you the story of a great guy. It has a sad ending, as we all do, I suppose. Maybe sadder than most though. But it’s a hell of a story.
Francis had a childhood tougher than most, followed by a blessed and wildly successful adulthood, followed by a truly amazing second act that got going once he had begun to “put himself out of business” as a father, followed by a heartbreakingly sad final stretch to the finish line.
He was born the second child of Daniel Duffy and Mary (aka Molly) Duffy (nee Geraghty). They lived in a walk-up apartment at 41-07 28th Avenue in Astoria, Queens. His older brother Daniel is still with us, living in California. His father Daniel Duffy was from Derry, Northern Ireland. His mother was from a little town called Granard in County Longford, right in the center of the Old Country.
So I guess I don’t have to tell you where the Duffy Family stands on immigration issues.
Dan and Molly met here in New York and were married in June of 1923 at the church of St. John the Evangelist on East 55th Street in Manhattan. This was four years after Dan earned his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, where he fought on the Western Front from September 1918 until Armistice Day ended WWI fourteen months later. Dan volunteered his services to the Army at the age of 25 in order to earn his American Citizenship. His engagements included the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, where 26,000 soldiers died.
But Dan didn’t. And with that old Duffy Luck working in his favor, he found Molly, who had come over with her sister Agnes from small-town Granard, working first as a domestic and later as a cook at Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant. (Yes, the prize fighter. And Aunt Agnes, who lived into her 90’s and got to tell me lots of stories, was the hat check girl at the Biltmore Hotel, and “oh, Johnny, I got ta meet everyone!”).
During Francis’ grade school years, smack in the middle of the Great Depression, Dan was not well for a long time. I’d tell you why, but when it comes to discussing other people’s problems, I share the mantra of the guys of Dan’s and Francis’ generation: “It’s none of your goddamn business”. Suffice to say, Molly had to keep the family afloat, and it could not have been easy.
In his public school years, Francis was not the most natural student, which is how he met the love of his life. He was just trying to get through 11th grade English at Bryant High School when he caught the eye of the best student in the class, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed knockout from a more “lace curtain Irish” family by the name of Joan Marie Scully. They began dating and got married four years out of high school.
And, because he looked at life through his own little funhouse mirror (and taught me to do the same), in Francis’ world, you had to hum along when you drove over drawbridges (aka “singing bridges”), and the guy who painted the arrows for the twisting road signs upstate was drunk on the job. And thus, he told me when I was very little that he had to get married at 23 because he started losing his hair and it became a race against time before my mother wouldn’t want him anymore. He also told me that the monks who he stayed with in Germany had tattooed the Lord’s Prayer in miniature on his bald spot, but you had to look really close to see it. And when you’d look really close to see it, he’d start tickling you and say “Stop means go!” You’d stay “STOP!”, and he’d keep going until you said “GO!”, then he’d keep going anyway.
During the four years between high school and marriage, Joan earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of New Rochelle, making her mark as the editor of the school newspaper. She went on to earn a master’s degree in English and education and began what would be 25-year teaching career with a 16-year maternity leave in the middle of it.
But Francis’ application to the Officers’ Training Program at Maine Maritime Academy was rejected, and he decided that “regular college” was not for him. He joined the merchant marines as a seaman at 18 years old. His dream of going out to sea had been the candle burning inside his brain since he was a boy. And that candle was still burning when he co-authored The New York Harbor Book with his friend Bill Miller half a century later.
So here is Francis J. Duffy himself to tell you all about it, from the introduction to the book, published in 1986, when he was 56, a year younger than I am now:
“It was one of those moments that never faded from my memory, during a walk with my father across the recently opened Triborough Bridge. Looking down from the walkway, 315 feet above the East River and the infamous Hell Gate waters, I watched the ships and boats below and confidently told my father that when I grew up, I wanted to work on ships…The panorama of vessels was endless; tankers, cargo ships, military vessels, tugs, barges and railroad car floats, enough to hold a young boy’s attention for hours on end and encourage him to build dreams of sailing away someday…I did fulfill my dream after high school, sailing in the merchant marine on tankers, liberty ships, troop transports and even refugee carriers. Although the romance of the sea paled after I was married and had children, even after swallowing the anchor and coming ashore to work, my fascination with things maritime has never ended.”
As you can see, Francis was a really smart guy who was frustrated that he didn’t do better in school. In the course of his life, he went on to write two books and hundreds of magazine articles, not to mention his ten years as the editor of Towline, the in-house magazine of the Moran Towing Company, who not only had the flashiest tugboats in NY Harbor but also the best season-ticket box at Shea Stadium.
As a teacher, I saw this a lot over 25 years. Young people with loads of natural intelligence who I knew were going to turn out just fine, but who just were not good at “the school game.” As a matter of fact, when I started a teaching job in 1995 at Rockaway Beach Junior High School, in one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods, Francis tossed me a piece of wisdom that nobody in the Education Department at CUNY Queens ever thought to say, something that guided my whole approach to conquering the job. He said, “Don’t expect those kids down there to have middle class values. If you were them, with what they go through, you wouldn’t give a shit either.”
If you think this advice smacks of racism, you didn’t know Francis. It was his way of warning me that throwing your white privilege around won’t win you friends in the projects of Rockaway. You’d be amazed how many people I worked with who didn’t get that. Then again, no you wouldn’t.
As far as I’m concerned, my parents were on the right side of history on just about every issue: Race, immigration, social services, human rights, worker’s rights, you name it. They were dyed-in-the-wool Liberal Democrats who worshipped FDR and mourned John F. Kennedy, and they weren’t fooled by Nixon or Reagan for a damned second. I try to see things from other people’s political and social points-of-view. I really do. But more often than not, when I run it through my parents’ filter, it comes out horse shit.
As a young man sailing on transport ships as a merchant seaman, Francis got to meet other young men from all over the country, and as a straight-arrow, ultra-Catholic Northeastern Liberal, he took an immediate dislike to the “yahoos” from the South (with their guitars and their cigarettes). Everyone had to share quarters with a bunkmate, and Francis became aware that one of these yahoos was complaining that his bunkmate was black. Francis told him he’d switch bunks with him, as the black guy had to be a better bet than the asshole redneck he had gotten stuck with. And he and a seaman named Charlie Calhoun became good friends and kept in touch throughout their lives. AND, when he found out that Charlie’s son Will was the drummer for the band Living Colour, he also had something cool to tell his son John, who likes that kind of music.
I heard my father make lots of snide comments about people of all races and creeds, mostly for what he saw as the sin of falling into the stereotypes they would have been best to try to avoid. He hated the negative stereotypes of the Irish, but he hated even more the Irish that perpetuated those stereotypes. There was a subset that he called “The Bullshit Stage Irish”, the ones that talked way too loud and drank way too much and gave the rest of us a bad name. He liked Irish music if it had some depth, but he referred to the more commercialized stuff as “that diddley-diddley shit.”
But Francis was ultimately every ethnic group’s rooting squad, in that he’d rip into anybody who would attempt to disparage any group at large, or to suggest that any color or creed was inherently inferior. I learned that one very early on: Only dopey bastards think they’re better than everyone because they’re white.
Francis didn’t like to talk about his childhood much, but he loved to talk about his time in the merchant marines. In case you don’t know, (and I probably wouldn’t have), the simplest way I can explain the merchant marines is that it’s sort of an auxiliary of the Navy, with privately-owned ships that are commissioned by the government to move cargo and troops. It’s sort of quasi-military. They wear uniforms and they have officers, which is what he wanted to be, but his high school grades weren’t good enough. He would work as a merchant seaman six months on and six months off. He did this straight out of high school until his first child came along about five years later.
As I was writing this post in the weeks after Francis’ death, my brother Thom actually did something useful, pulling some strings to get a feature obituary article published in both The New York Times and Newsday. He then sent links to the email addresses that Francis still had in his old-fashioned rolodex. What ensued was a kind of slow-motion virtual wake, with many of his colleagues from the “Frank Duffy, Maritime Writer and Photographer” years checking in with kind words and memories.
In an ironic twist, after not making the cut for officer’s training, years and years later, he was one of the founders of the Maritime Industry Museum of SUNY Maritime College at Fort Schuyler. Jim McNamara, one of the gentleman he worked with on this project, wrote a letter to the directors and friends of the museum informing them of the sad news. The information he included in that letter filled in a few blanks for me regarding Francis’ merchant marine Service.
Because of Mr. McNamara, I know that Francis attended The Seamen’s Church Institute, still in business today at 25 South Street in Manhattan. He earned his seaman’s papers and spent the majority of his tours working for the Army Transport Service aboard a troopship called the Alexander Patch.
His crossed the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and into The Mideast at the age when I was flunking out of classes at Nassau Community College and posing in bars that blasted Depeche Mode and Haircut 100, not to mention living on his dime.
On one of his tours, he signed up to take care of military dogs who were being transported to Europe, because he’d get to hang out with dogs all day. I loved the image of my father as a young man in uniform surrounded by a bunch of German Shepherds. Mookie could certainly attest to his love of animals.
Many, many years later, my parents ended up taking in a formerly feral cat that, despite being very small, had pumped out more than one litter of kittens in the backyard. At some point during her life in the wild, Runt the Cat had gotten her tail bitten off. But she was an excellent cat, and my parents even took her with them when they moved out east.
It’s a pretty safe bet to judge people by how they treat animals, never mind their children. My oldest sister brought home a kitten that a guy was about to drown in the creek on my second birthday in 1965. Herman the Cat went on to live with us for 18 years. When Herman was an old man, he would jump up next to his buddy Francis at dinner every night. And every night, Francis would greet him by saying, “Hello son!”.
And because I had started bugging my parents for a dog from the time I was five, I have a vivid picture in my head of my father’s one in a million smile when they brought Ace the Dog home to me one August afternoon when I was eight.
Runt The Cat
Herman The Cat
Runt the Cat died in Francis’ lap one night out in Jefferson’s Ferry. In retrospect, it was a turning point, as it seemed like my parents really started to decline after they had nobody left to take care of.
Anyway (as our long story lengthens), we have to make one last Port of Call for the merchant marine years, so I can tell you the story of how Francis ended up in the job that he turned into his “marketable skill”, a phrase with which his children were all very, very familiar. From the 1950’s until the 1980’s, Francis made his living with his stationary engineer’s license. He was a member of Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineer’s, and proud of it. As he told it to me, the reason that he chose this particular career path is because he was sailing through the North Atlantic, and it was bone-chilling cold. He happened to go down to the ship’s boiler room for some reason and saw a group of guys sitting at a card table, drinking coffee, all toasty warm. And he said sign me up.
The punchline is that once he started working in the boiler room, all his assignments were sailing into the Middle East, and it was 500 degrees in the boiler room.
So Francis has his around-the-world adventures, finds out he’s going to be a father, resigns from the merchant marines the year the Korean War ends, takes his marketable skill and his engineer’s license and gets a job helping to run the terminal buildings at Idlewild Airport, a decade before it became JFK.
And it’s funny: Had he gotten into Maine Maritime Academy and had he become an officer; he would have been away from his family six months a year. I could not imagine what that would have been like, and I’m sure once he settled into his new role as Dad, he couldn’t have either.
Francis started his Dad Career at the age of 24 and he and Joan bought a house when they were both 25. Valley Stream was an easy commute to Idlewild, but Joan wanted to be near the water. And Francis’ overriding mantra was “Whatever Joan Wants.” So first they looked at houses on the Freeport Canals and I’m glad they didn’t buy one. For them, and later for Trisha and me, finding The House on Duffy’s Creek, which had gone up for sale by the original owners only five years after it was built, was Divine Providence. But the mortgage on $13,500 scared the hell out of them.
By the time I arrived as the Fifth Duffy in 1963 (“The Last of The Mohicans” was one of my Francis Names, along with dopey bastard), my parents had already been in the family-raising business for ten years. And when I was sixth months old, and Francis was 33, his own father died suddenly at 69. Joan had already lost her father in 1955, also in his 60’s. So no Grandpas for me.
As a matter of fact, the three people John Daniel Duffy was named for, including a Grandpa, a Pope and a President, all died the year I was born. My mother told me, lots and lots of times, that one of her nun buddies from the College of New Rochelle remarked that this meant I had “three good friends at the right hand of God,” which I bet is just about the most Irish freaking thing you’ve ever heard.
Needless to say, I’ve always loved the creek that runs in back of our house. It’s been flowing nonstop through every story I’ve told you today, and the ones I haven’t gotten to yet, and to me that’s something worth paying attention to. Francis liked to look out the window at the creek changing with the seasons and the tides and say, “it’s like being on vacation every day.” So for the point at which I enter the story, we may as well start with the creek.
Duffy’s Creek is actually a brackish tidal basin that takes in saltwater from Jamaica Bay and fresh water from a stream system and a small lake running about six miles north. It was commonly known as Watt’s Creek when I was a kid, until I changed it. Francis bought an aluminum rowboat and a 15mph Johnston Outboard Motor to take us for rides. A couple of times we hitched the boat to a trailer and went out from the Woodmere Docks to explore the Bay Houses. At the time, you could get all the way out to the airport and the bay from our backyard, and there was actually a “5 mph speed limit sign” posted on the creek. People would come down in motorboats, wave to us, realize they couldn’t get past the dam on Mill Road, turn around, wave to us again, and go back towards Rosedale.
But an adventure of this sort was not advised, as the tide in Jamaica Bay could mess you up bad if you didn’t know what you were doing. And this gave rise to Francis’ favorite bedtime story, about the boy who didn’t listen to his father and took the boat out without permission, “and he went down past Mr. Campbell’s house, down past Mr. Burnett’s House, down past Mr. O’Neill’s House, down past the high school, under the bridge, out past the airport, into the ocean, and they never saw him again.”
My brother Thom asked me once what I believe is the single biggest gift I got from being raised in The Art of Being Francis. One thing came to mind right away. My father taught me the incomparable feeling of piloting a boat on the water and knowing what you’re doing. I definitely don’t like it as much as he did, though. I went on an Outward Bound trip in Maine when I was 16, where we sailed on the open ocean, and while I’m glad I had the experience, I pretty much hated it. I’m more of a flat water guy. My parents loved to go on cruises, and personally I would rather be trapped in a basement for a week. But about six years ago, I got in touch with my Inner Francis and started kayaking, and to teach my son to love it. And my dad is right there with me any time I’m not on terra firma.
Meanwhile, heading the other way up the creek, my maternal grandmother, Julia Scully, bough the house next door to us a year after my parents moved here, and commenced to drive Francis up the wall for the next thirty years. But he was the one who had originally convinced her to move out to the suburbs when the house went on the market shortly after my grandfather William Scully died. Whatever Joan wants.
While it was nice having a contiguous lawn to play on, I could tell from when I was very young that Grandma Scully was a handful. She paid my parents one dollar every night to deliver (via me) a plate of whatever they were having for dinner that night across the lawn to her kitchen table. Francis pointed out many, many times what a great deal Grandma was getting on the “dollar supper”, which wasn’t adjusted for inflation once in over thirty years.
She also decided that she would help my mother out by having one of us bring freshly dried laundry in baskets over to her attic, where there was an ancient, out of tune piano that I’m sure she must have insisted had to be carried down the stairs of her apartment building in Astoria, into a van and back up the stairs to the unfinished attic of 81 Jedwood Place in Valley Stream. There, next to this never-played piano, she would separate, fold and iron the laundry so one of us could be sent back over to get it later, sometimes followed several hours later by Francis saying, “where the hell is my (shirt / underwear/ pajamas / etc.)?”
And thus was born, in the wonderful mind of Francis J. Duffy, the Legend of The Sock-Eating Piano.
And here’s another legendary family story: My father’s personal mic drop when it came to my maternal grandmother. Grandma Scully took Francis aside on his wedding day to tell him that there was no room for him in the Scully Plot at St. John’s Catholic Cemetery, which they have had since the mid 19th Century. Really. That happened. And If he told the Scully Plot story once, damned if he hadn’t told it five-hundred times. And yet he made sure she was taken care of by moving her out to Valley Stream and making it seem like her idea, when it was his idea.
And today, he is buried in the Scully Plot, but they spelled his name on the headstone with an “e” by mistake.
So I guess it was a draw.
Now, when I was very little I had a thought that I knew I couldn’t express out loud, which was that I wished the fun Grandma lived next door to us instead. My father’s mother was my good buddy until I was eight years old. She would come to visit every few weeks from Astoria, or we would go to see her. I once told her that I liked the little cartoons on the Quaker Instant Oatmeal envelopes. From that day forward, she saved me every single oatmeal envelope that she emptied, carefully torn off at the top. She probably had just saved another one the day she fell on the street and broke her hip, which was when they found out she had advanced bone cancer.
My “Grandma Duffy” and I lit up around each other. I was “her Johnny” and I could listen to her Irish lilt all day. Having a grandparent from the Old Country was like having access to a TV station that no one else got, where they even speak a different kind of English. And I later found out, through reading captions she wrote on old photographs in an album I found in the attic of my house, that she was the real reason why we were all funny. I knew there was a reason I liked her best when I was little, but I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. That was it. She was funny. And now that I know that her birthplace was established in the year 256, I like to think that being a wiseass is buried deep in the Duffy DNA. You probably had to be pretty good to make people laugh in 256.
When she was dying of cancer in 1971 at St. Rose’s Hospice on the Lower East Side, my father drove me in on a Sunday morning to say goodbye. Of course he did his tour guide narrative on the way, telling me all about the buildings and history around me, as he did whenever we drove into the city. Still, that must have been a rough one for him. I know this because the day I drove my own eight-year old son to Mather Hospital to say goodbye to his Grandma Duffy forty years later was a rough one for me.
Through most of the 60’s and 70’s, my parents didn’t have two dimes to rub together. Yet every summer from 1966 to 1974, we went on a two or three three-week vacation to a paradise in the Adirondack Mountains called Camp Lavigerie. Francis hauled hundreds of pounds of humans and cargo 700 miles round trip in the red VW Bus he bought new in 1964 and sold to some hippies in 1972. (It was white Ford station wagons after that. Then nothing but Honda Accords).
Now, you ask, what would a guy who loved hanging out around New York Harbor and watching the big ships sailing past the Statue of Liberty be doing in the Adirondacks for three weeks every July? Well, the answer to that question is Whatever Joan Wants. My mother was introduced to the North Country by her college roommate and she fell in love. And Francis loved Joan, so he also learned to love mountains and lakes. And so did I. The 15 mph Johnston Outboard Motor was the first thing to go in the bus every summer, ready to be hooked up to a rented aluminum boat, ready to take us to Bing Tormey’s General Store across Lake Kushaqua, where Francis would pick up the New York Times and where I first picked up a mournful taste for Dr. Pepper. And I and my brothers and sisters have been drawn back to Lake Kushaqua like moths over and over as the years pass. Last summer, I had the unique pleasure of kayaking on Kushaqua with my son Jack, my brother Mike and his girlfriend, more than fifty years after that first trip to Tormey’s.
In August of 1972, the year after Molly died, we took another week or so of vacation to circle the coast of Ireland in a rented car, with a trip inland to the village of Granard in County Longford, where she was born before the first dawn of the 20th Century. My parents decided to take just me and my brother Thom, four and a half years older than me. The older three stayed back and threw parties while Grandma Scully was in charge next door. We couldn’t go to Derry in the North to see where Dan was born because of the troubles at the time. Of course, Francis was ready to go anyway, but the car rental company wouldn’t let him.
In Granard, I remember Francis getting out of the car to talk to a local fellow to find out directions to the home of some cousins he thought he might find, and the guy turned out to be his cousin. I can see that moment like it happened yesterday; the stone house, the hedgerows, my dad’s hat and trench coat, the whole thing. I even remember the red rental car. The trip was magical to me: Exploring castle ruins, watching the patchwork of green from the airplane landing at Shannon Airport, meeting other distant relatives who looked and sounded like leprechauns (their name was Ellis and they lived on a farm), following Thom as we snuck out of the hotel room in Dublin to do our own exploring when my parents left us there for a couple of hours, and best of all to a seven year-old, hotels with heated indoor swimming pools.
Years later (and we’ll get there if you stick around), when my father became Frank Duffy, everybody’s go-to maritime writer and aerial photography specialist in New York Harbor, and built his own free-lancing business by, among other adventures, taking pictures of all manner of sailing vessels while hanging out of rented helicopters and scaring the crap out of my mom (whom he reassured by telling her they were all piloted by Vietnam Vets), he named that business Granard Associates. And the genesis of Granard Associates was when he bought his first of many SLR cameras for that trip to Ireland in 1972, probably about five years before he sold his first picture as Frank Duffy.
Ireland, of course, is a really good place to take pictures, provided you follow some simple, established protocols.
Alas, the rules of society were nothing in the face of Francis J. Duffy with a camera. If the shot was there, he was going for it. Trespassing on private property was of trivial concern compared to getting a great picture, which explains why several years after the Ireland trip, he committed several felonies one Summer Sunday afternoon to take a pilot boat out to the then abandoned Ellis Island – the place where both of his parents first met New York City – to break into the buildings and take pictures, taking his two youngest sons along for the history lesson, but fortunately not to witness him being arrested and led into custody. Naturally, he and his buddy the pilot boat captain got away with the whole thing,
Sometime in the early 1990’s, I heard that they were tearing down the vaudeville-era Rio Theater in my hometown of Valley Stream that week.
I happened to mention this to my father on a Saturday afternoon. We were literally inside the theater taking pictures half an hour later. There were guys working on the demo crew who saw him walk in with the big, fancy camera around his neck and just assumed he belonged there.
But he met his match the afternoon when we saw the Tinkers’ trailer parked along the road. Tinkers are the Gypsies of Ireland. The name derives from making a living as tinsmiths. It is politically correct in Ireland to call them the Travelers. Francis called them the Tinkers.
We pulled over to get a look at a Tinker’s trailer. I can see it. Ornate wood designs painted bright reds and blues and oranges, with three steps up to a red door that looked like the door in the tree in fairy tales. He told me to run over and stand in front of it while he drew that SLR Camera from the bag. Dutifully, I stood on the steps. The little second-generation leprechaun.
And the Tinker emerges from that fairytale door, looking quite like a fairytale character himself, and not one of the nice ones. He grabs me by the collar of my windbreaker and suggests to the man with the camera that ya may want to pay me a few pounds fer takin’ pictures of me house, Yank. And the man with the camera quickly came to a financial arrangement with the Tinker, who in turn released me.
And for years and years and years, I could count on Francis to pull out one of his all-time best lines, every few times I wised-off to him, or was otherwise annoying:
“I should have left you with the Goddamn Tinkers.”
Francis was a busy guy in the 1970’s. With four kids in college, his wife went back to work as a New York City high school English teacher when I started first grade. He had left the airport around 1965 for a new, better-paying job as a school custodian engineer for the NYC Board of Education, then by the time he was sporting his 70’s sideburns, he grabbed a position as the supervisor of school custodians. His territory was Greenwich Village down to Chinatown. On school vacations, I had designated “Go to Work with Dad” days. That would mean getting up early to drive to the Queens Courthouse Municipal Parking Lot on the Belt Parkway and the Van Wyck Expressway (the first time I heard him say “fuck”), then taking the E or the F downtown (where I was instructed that people on subways do not make eye contact) to the office that he shared with the other supervisors on 7th Avenue South. I can still see Mr. Strom, the big guy with the round glasses who talked about his place up in the country, and Mr. Lambert, the black guy with the jazzy sportscoat and hat who followed the Mets just like I did.
Francis’ job was to go from school to school and check in with the custodian, take a look around, then sign the book. Interestingly, he and the men he supervised were all in the same union. He referred to them as “The Good Brothers”. Not a dopey bastard among them as far as I know.
On my first Go to Work with Dad Day, we were walking through the cafeteria of an elementary school in Chinatown. Every single child in the room was Chinese except me. So just to screw with me, he said, “you’re gonna eat lunch with the kids here while I go to the office, OK?”, then enjoyed replaying my reaction to one of the Good Brothers, then to everybody in the family when we got home.
Lesson: Being freaked out because you’re in a room where nobody looks like you is just silly. Get over it.
One of the main highlights of Go to Work with Dad day was lunch at the Blue Mill Restaurant, tucked away in a little side street of 7th Ave South. As a man who thought cooking was something his mother, the ship’s cook or his wife did, Francis was a huge fan of restaurants, and had a collection of matchbooks from every restaurant he visited under glass on the top of his dresser, though of course he didn’t smoke. He and the Good Brothers always took their full hour for lunch. I remember Francis greeting the owner of the Blue Mill warmly, even though to me he looked like the guy who used to beat up Charlie Chaplin.
The other highlight of the day was the S.S. John Brown.
The John Brown was a WW II Victory Ship, one of 2,700 built in the blink of an eye when this country could do things. “The Brown” operated as a merchant marine ship before being converted into a New York City Vocational High School in 1946. Until 1983, the “School Ship” trained thousands of guys to be merchant marines. In retrospect, I think Francis took that commute downtown for the better part of twenty years just to get to know restaurateurs and hang out on the John Brown every chance he got.
The Brown was docked on Pier 43 at the end of West 25th Street, where the locals would sunbathe in thongs while rubbing suntan lotion on each other intimately and Francis would walk right by like they weren’t there.
He loved showing his kids around the kind of ship where he had lived his youthful adventures. And I cannot smell diesel fuel to this day without being seven years old with my dad again.
The John Brown also had a small “training vessel” called the “Pisces”, which is the one we stole to go to Ellis Island.( As you see, I was piloting for a bit, out on New York Harbor). It still astounds me what a ballsy thing that was to do.
And there’s two things I can tell you about the S.S. John Brown: One is that it’s still around, one of the only two remaining Liberty Ships, currently operating as a museum in Baltimore, and if you’re near there, you can visit it. The other thing is that it launched the career of the man everyone connected to New York Harbor would come know and love as Frank Duffy.
Francis Duffy lived in Valley Stream, Long Island for 44 years, but you could have found him in Downtown Manhattan, as his alter-ego Frank Duffy, a good chunk of that time. A couple of nights a week in the years when the tuitions were piling up, he taught aspiring stationery engineers at Apex Technical School. He also took several years of night classes at Pace University to get his bachelor’s degree. This of course gave him more time for restaurants in between jobs, but he also started getting involved in various organizations and projects connected to the Harbor.
Then he started writing articles and taking pictures and getting them published. As a guy who needed my mom to get him through 11th grade English, he was over the moon proud to see his byline in publications like Steamboat Bill and The National Fisherman. (My mom was, of course, his editor, and they fought like hell, but they got the job done). And he kept coming up with new ideas for articles. He loved this cartoon he saw in The New Yorker by Frank Booth, where a man is sitting in front of a typewriter on his front porch staring into space, as ten dogs of different breeds sit around him and his wife says from the doorway, “Write about dogs.”
Frank Duffy wrote about ships. And he took lots and lots and lots of pictures. And he met more and more people and got involved in more and more projects. When the Bicentennial rolled around in 1976, with its parade of big sailing ships passing the Statue of Liberty and its humongous fireworks display, we were on the roof of a local NYC School having a big party. When they renovated the Lady of The Harbor for her 100th birthday ten years later, Francis climbed up on the scaffolding to take pictures.
Here’s the proof:
The side gig got bigger and bigger, to the point where he checked out of there civil service the second he hit 25 years in 1985. Over the ensuing 20 years, he was for ten of them the head of Public Relations for the Moran Towing Company (The tugboats with the big “M” on them). He co-authored a book with his friend Bill Miller called The New York Harbor Book, then wrote his own book, Always on Station, the story of the Sandy Hook Pilots who guide gigantic ships and barges into the Harbor.
One thing I definitely picked up studying The Art of Being Francis was his passion for finding out every single thing he could about any subject that grabbed his attention, then having to tell people what he found out. And, of course, he did most of that before there was an Internet.
At some point, he got interested in the story of The General Slocum Disaster, a major incident in NYC history from June 15, 1904 in which an excursion boat with outdated or non-existent safety equipment caught fire on a day trip shortly after leaving the dock at nine o’clock in the morning. The boat had been rented by St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on the Lower East Side for $350, and was carrying mostly German immigrant woman and children. Of 1,358 passengers, 1,021 died, with the unthinkable choice of being burned alive on the boat or jumping off and drowning in the water. The captain, Harry Van Schaick, was later found guilty of criminal negligence.
Yes, stubbornness, stupidity, poor planning and lack of decisive action can lead to a lot of people dying who shouldn’t have. That’s how the man whose passions led to all sorts of people learning about the forgotten tragedy of the General Slocum ended up dying himself.
But because he lived his life as he did, lots of people know the story of the General Slocum who otherwise wouldn’t, and the memorial for the 1.021 dead that was run-down and neglected in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village is now maintained, and a wreath-laying ceremony started by Frank Duffy still takes places on June 15th to this day. He even made friends with two women who survived the fire as infants: Catherine Connelly, who lived to be 109, and Adella Wotherspoon, an infant in 1904 who died at the age of 100 the month my son was born in 2004. If you want to learn a little more (and get away from me for awhile) You can take a look at Francis himself in this History Channel documentary:
Now, you can imagine with all these irons in the fire, and all this recognition and ego-affirming as Frank Duffy, and all these accomplishments piling up (one of his family jokes was if he were criticized him over something trivial, he’d come back with, “how many guys do you know who have readers all over world?”), he didn’t really have the brain space for this snotty youngest kid who kept screwing up in school, who didn’t share his interests, and seemed to be involved in suspicious activities.
But he never gave up on me. And he always tried to find ways to meet me where I was.
I was his son, and that never stopped counting for something.
Case in point: Francis was not a baseball fan. Couldn’t care less about it. But after my first-grade teacher let us watch the ’69 World Series (which the Mets won on October 16, which was my mom’s 40th birthday) following the Mets was one of my own personal “looking out from the Triborough Bridge” little-boy epiphanies.
And every year from when I was seven until I became an intolerable teenager and started taking the train to Shea with my intolerable teenage friends, Francis would hand me the Mets schedule in March and say, “pick two games”.
Fifteen years or so later, he regularly got the best seats in the house, right behind home plate, from his job at Moran Towing. We got the tickets five or six times a year for over ten years, and I know he especially liked that this made him cooler in my eyes. Plus, he started going to more games himself because his wife really enjoyed it. Whatever Joan Wants.
And twenty years or so after that, shortly before his long, slow decline began, he was flipping through the Times at his table in the yellow cottage at the Jefferson’s Ferry Life Care Community and he saw an ad for a framed picture of the Mookie Wilson’s slow ground ball going under Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series, signed by both Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson, and he said, “I bet you John would like that”, and he ordered it for me on the spot. It is one of my most prized possessions.
So you’d think I would’ve been nicer to him when I was younger.
But, Christ I was a dopey bastard.
My mother saw me going to Syracuse University, majoring in communications, being a famous guy who communicates. Through they were not the least bit rich, Francis would often say to me, “you know I’d pay for Harvard if you got in.”
But with my grades in high school, Nassau Community College was where I wound up.
Then I fucked THAT up.
So after several missteps and several incomplete college courses which cost money, I found myself working at the Foodtown Supermarket during the day and taking classes at night, and instead of going away to college and then going away, I crept further into my twenties still living at home, keeping from Francis from going out of business. Then again, while he was hanging out with what my mom called his “ship buddies in the city”, I was back in Valley Stream mowing the lawn, doing the grocery shopping and driving people to and from the airport when necessary. Then he’d come home and we’d fight about something. So, in a nod to The Pink Panther (and because I inherited Francis’ funhouse mirror), I started calling myself Chan the Houseboy.
Francis introduced me to two people during my Chan the Houseboy years who helped point me in the right direction. One was a world-famous doctor and professor, the other was a custodian engineer.
After one of our regularly scheduled battles, Francis didn’t know what the hell else to tell me, so he gave me a book that he had kept for most of his life. It was a 45-page book, a little bigger than a tin of Altoids, published in 1937. Its text was a speech by Dr. William Osler, a Canadian who was one of the four professors who founded Johns Hopkins Medical School, credited with being the first to include residencies in medical school training.
The speech was given to the Yale Graduating Class of 1917, and it was called “A Way of Life.” Francis was trying to give me the secret of how he became Francis, and I said, “yeah, yeah, whatever.” But I read it. And it got me thinking.
Osler’s philosophy was basically, “get up off your ass and do something.” His “Way of Life” was to take each day of your life as a separate entity (a sort of Zen Buddhist “there is no past there is no future” kind of thing). He proposed that this “handle to fit your life tools.” was to suggest that “life is a habit.” Mastery of life comes through repetition, which means being the same guy every day, preferably a good one.
I’ll let the good Dr. Osler take it for a little bit here:
“Now, for the day itself! What first? Be your own daysman!…Get in touch with the finite, and grasp in full enjoyment that sense of capacity of a machine working smoothly. Join the whole creation of animate things in a deep heartfelt joy that you are alive, that you see the sun, that you are in this glorious earth, which nature has made so beautiful, and which is yours to conquer and enjoy.”
Great stuff, but Osler went on to say that I should quit smoking (“Lady Nicotine”) so I’d feel better in the morning, and I found that an unreasonable request. But he also gave me this pearl of wisdom: “Life is straight, plain business, and the way is clear, blazed for you by generations of strong men, into whose labors you enter and whose ideas must be your inspiration.”
Again, I totally got it, and it’s a part of my overall philosophy. But I found guys like Dr. Osler and my father to be a little too tight in their presentation. I guess I needed “A Way of Life Lite.”
And then I met Joe Darcy.
Mr. Darcy was the Custodian Engineer of PS 205 in Oakland Gardens, south of Bayside, Queens. In the summer, I would go on hiatus from Foodtown, where I was beloved but made $6 an hour, and I’d work as a school cleaner for one of the Good Brothers, where I’d make $13 an hour. (I am the only person you know who did his student teaching in the same school where he had once cleaned the bathrooms). Mr. Darcy was one of my summer bosses.
He was from the Old Country, the size of a thatched cottage, so Irish it was practically exploding out of his face from under a shock of grey hair. He was funny as hell and we took an instant liking to each other. To this day, when I ask my wife if she knows the score of the ballgame, I’ll call out in Darcy’s booming brogue, “SO HOW’RE ME METSIES DOIN’?” The crew was only four guys, but he insisted that we observe holidays, which meant a cold case of Budweiser cans around 2 pm on July 3rd.
At around 4:30 pm that day, walking out to our respective cars, Mr. Darcy had some wisdom for me, which he imparted by practically swallowing me up under his arm:
“Let me tell ya somethin’ about yer father, Johnny. Yer father? He’s a PROUD motherfucker! And ya got to do right by him, Johnny! ‘Cause he’s a good man. Now you and me, Johnny, we’re a couple of fuck ups. We’ll always be a couple of fuck ups. But YOU! (poking me in the chest with a gigantic finger at this point) You gotta do right by him! You can’t embarrass him! You hear me, Johnny? He’s a PROUD mother fucker!”
Now I knew from Francis that Darcy was not a fuck up. Not at all. After emigrating to New York from Ireland, he had put himself through school at night while working as a bellhop in a Manhattan hotel and had earned his stationary engineer’s license. He was a husband, a father and a homeowner. But Darcy could see that I was not as tightly wrapped as my father, and I’m sure he had heard stories about me, so he took it upon himself to point me towards an achievable goal: Be who you are, but don’t embarrass that man.
I guess that was the first step towards becoming Stoned Francis. But I can be a proud motherfucker, too.
The Chan The Houseboy Agreement was that I paid for my tuition and expenses and lived rent-free as long as I was chipping away at a degree. Rent on Long Island was and is insane, and many of my friends had gotten around that by getting married. It was not an ideal situation of course, but one upside is that Francis and Joan were gone about six weeks of the year at this point, going on cruises and other trips that Francis was either getting gratis in exchange for his photojournalist services or using as a fat tax write off. The grandchildren started coming around this time and my parents were in their glory. (Chan The Houseboy was also very good at being Uncle John). They had finally put themselves out of business, notwithstanding the young fellow living in their attic.
In the end, I took Chan eight years to get a four-year degree, parlaying an Associate’s credits to a B.A in English degree from CUNY in 1989. I was completely embarrassed by how long it took, and that I was living at home at 26. But Francis insisted that we celebrate the occasion. At the time, he owned a small share of a “party boat” operating near the South Street Seaport called the Mystique. My parents invited a bunch of their friends and insisted that I invite a bunch of my friends, and we sailed around New York Harbor on beautiful summer night and we had a grand old time.
It’s funny to me in retrospect that I normally would try to keep my friends away from Francis, even though he’d always fool me and wind up finding something in common with them, long hair, leather jackets, bloodshot eyes, tattoos and all. That was his Dale Carnegie thing. Years later, my wife said whenever she saw him, he’d ask about her parents and her sisters and brothers, and he’d remember something she said last time, and there’d be no question that he wasn’t just making small talk. He actually wanted to know. And if you’d introduce someone to Francis, he’s often come back at you a month later, and say, “Hey, did ____ get that job?” You could say It was a pretty amazing gift he had, but it wasn’t a gift. It was a habit he had worked at. A Way of Life.
My first post-BA job was in the production department of New York Magazine. Francis was impressed. My first place off Jedwood Place was a house I shared with two Valley Stream buddies 20 miles north, overlooking Hempstead Harbor in Sea Cliff, Long Island. Francis was both impressed and happy to get rid of me. It helped that my share of the rent (for a room the size of a walk-in closet) was $400, because the glamourous city job paid $18,000 a year. After a year in Sea Cliff, the other two guys, who had lived there for five years before me, were completely sick of each other and decided not to renew the lease, and I was back to the attic of my parents’ house at the age of 27.
The starting salary for a NYC teacher at the time was $28,000. After experiencing the kissassitocracy of the New York Publishing world, civil service, the family business, started looking better and better. Despite my mother warning me (and rightly so) that it was a lot harder than it seemed (Francis always thought a marketable skill was a good idea), I went back to CUNY Queens for my Master’s degree and a teaching license, and spent another couple of years as Chan The Houseboy.
But by this time, Francis and I were done fighting. We’d talk politics and current events, we’d watch “Seinfeld”, I’d know what was going on at the Maritime Museum and talk on the phone to the old ladies who survived the General Slocum. It was frustrating as hell to be there, but he didn’t make it intolerable. And I guess we both figured it was a temporary situation and we may as well enjoy each other’s company.
Ultimately, it was a temporary situation, but it ended up lasting way, way longer than it should have. Once I was licensed in the Fall of 1992, my mother had a friend who had friend who was a principal of a high school in the Bronx and I had a job. (It happens to be the building that was built over the Hutchinson River Parkway, and I drive under it and thank it for the four months of service credit I got towards my retirement on my way to our house up in Copake Falls, which is as far from the Bronx as you can get in two hours).
The school was not good. For the most part, I didn’t like the people I worked with. I was a Nassau / Queens guy and the Bronx was another country. I was having trouble finding the right tone with the kids in the crappy program they gave me. The building itself made my head hurt. The principal was not the nice guy he had sold himself as to me, and I was not the confident, ready-to-go rookie teacher I had sold myself as to him. It was a terrible situation, but I was determined to see it through. On a Friday afternoon in early October, one of my Sea Cliff roommates tipped me off to a studio apartment for rent in his building in Douglaston. I had a blank check in my hand, but somebody had scooped it up by the time I got there.
The next morning my parents took a beautiful October day to go walk around the Old Westbury Gardens, and I went to see Dr. Rivara about something that hadn’t seemed quite right, and that I had been putting off for a couple of months. Dr. Rivara sent me directly to Dr. Stanley Landau, a urologist in Rockville Centre.
And that afternoon, my parents coming home all spiritually refreshed from their golden afternoon at Old Westbury Gardens, I had to sit them down and tell them I had testicular cancer. My mother told me something later about that day that I’ll never forget. She said, “In all the years I’d known your father, that was the saddest I’ve ever seen him.”
Francis let me stay in his house as long as I needed to be there, and I need to be there three and a half more years.
Because it got to the point where I let myself get fired from the high school in the Bronx for too many days absent, and I didn’t care anymore. It was hellish under ordinary circumstances, and I refused to even entertain the notion of working in a hostile environment in between chemotherapy treatments, which turned out to be a very good decision, as those treatments knocked me on my ass completely.
But by that summer, I was cancer-free. Turns out testicular cancer was well-researched, and one of the most curable forms of cancer, I suppose because historically, most doctors had testicles. I got a job teaching ESL Classes to rich Europeans and Asians milking their student visas at a place called Aspect Language School that operated on the CW Post Campus in Old Brookville. I drove a cab in Port Washington and helped a friend in his cleaning business.
Francis loved hearing the details of all these jobs, because they were outside of his experience and he could learn something new. And now that we had stopped fighting with each other (he and mom still yelled at each other all the time), I could just enjoy him for the character that he was. If Joan were making him a sandwich, he would call from the other room, “make sure you use the nice mustard!” Which is to say, the Grey Poupon and not the French’s. To this day, I personify all food based on its temperament. The nice chicken.
And while once again functioning as Chan the Houseboy around my three poorly-paying jobs, I went on lots of job interviews at Long Island schools because I didn’t want to go back to the city no way no how. And I’d get invited in because my resume and cover letter contained no typos, and I’d have wonderful, positive interview, sometimes two, and they’d send me a follow-up letter saying how much they enjoyed meeting me but in the end they decided to hire the business manager’s nephew. They didn’t really say that, but they may as well have.
So Chan the Houseboy was slowly turning into what my mother called, “one of those sad, old Irish bachelors living with his parents.” (Her confidence was in me was inspiring).
This went on until Francis had seen enough. In the fall of 1995, he spread my resume around among the Good Brothers all over Queens, who would then drop them on principals’ desks all over Queens. People were always ready to help out Francis because they knew he’d help them out, or else he already had.
On the week before Columbus Day, staring down the barrel of another year of living in the attic, I got a call from Bob Spata, principal of Rockaway Beach Junior High School 180. He yelled everything, and that afternoon, this is what he yelled into the phone at me: “You come very highly recommended from Harvey Weintraub! And if you’re good enough for Harvey, you’re good enough for me! Come on in Tuesday morning!”
I had no idea who Harvey Weintraub was. But I came in Tuesday Morning and managed to work around it. It turns out that Harvey was a principal of another school who had taken the resume of a guy looking for an English teacher job from his custodian engineer, then remembered talking to Bob Spata about how he needed an English teacher.
So Francis set me up with the job I kept for the next 25 years, nine in Rockaway (which unlike the Bronx was more my kind of crazy), and 16 years in Ozone Park. You can imagine how happy I was to grab him on a Saturday afternoon early the next spring to drive over and look at my new apartment on the second floor of a house on the side of a six-lane highway in Lynbrook. I was still an old Irish bachelor, but at least I wasn’t living with my parents anymore. That was something. The first thing Francis did was buy himself the best self-propelling lawn mower he could find.
And it was a privilege to hang out with him in those years. No Dad Drama, just Francis Fun. He was always up to something. And if you were in with Francis, every once in a while, it would be your turn for a helicopter ride.
It happened to have come around to my turn again the day after Frank Sinatra died, May 15th, 1998. I remember that because when Francis came over to pick me up at my apartment in Lynbrook, I figured that was something I could lead off with. “Hey, did you hear about Sinatra?”
The whole world was buzzing with tributes and hagiography for one of the biggest stars of the century, and Francis says this: “I never liked him much.”
I nodded and I laughed out loud. Of course he didn’t like him much. In Francis’ World, vocal artistry, or any great talent, didn’t get you off the hook for being an asshole. Why should it?
That morning, Francis was dressed in his Frank Duffy, Granard Associates work uniform: The matching khaki pants and safari-style field coat with a hundred giant pockets among them, the brown baseball cap with the oversize brown sunglasses resting on the brim, and locked up tight out in his Honda Accord, the gigantic army green camera bag with several thousand dollars’ worth of equipment at the ready.
We were heading out of Republic Airport to take photos of a barge coming into New York Harbor from under the Verrazano Bridge (guided by the Sandy Hook Pilots). Francis would always remind you that all the pilots he worked with were Vietnam Vets. As if to say whatever happens, they’ve seen worse.
It was a beautiful Long Island morning, but already getting early-summer warm. Usually he flew from the 34th Street Heliport, so it was an extra treat to fly from Farmingdale straight over Nassau County, where we learned there are people making some serious money in the backyard swimming pool business, then out past Rockaway, where we flew right over my school.
Guests rode up front with the pilot, while Francis worked both windows in the back with his telephoto lens. It’s quite possible that one of the pictures he took that day is still framed on somebody’s office wall somewhere. He literally built an international reputation for being the best maritime aerial photographer in New York, and he could also whip you up a nice little press release and get it planted somewhere if you liked. He was 69 years old and having the time of his life. And if you also liked, he could come to your group with a couple of wheels of slides and give you a presentation on everything from the forgotten islands of New York Harbor to the Victory Ships of WWII.
He’d been known to take pictures hanging half out of his buckled seat, and he actually preferred it if there were no door in his way. In a nutshell, he was freaking crazy up there. When Joan expressed her worry (which she did so well), first Francis would do his patented twisted-mouth expression with a hand waving across your words like they were Camp Lavigerie mosquitos, and then he’d say, ‘Ahhh, go on! I’ll be fiiiiine! Besides, if I fall out, you’ll be a rich old lady. What do you care?”
As I told you before, once we didn’t need anything from each other, Francis and I got to be pretty good friends, and one of the best ways to cement a friendship is to get in some trouble together, whether intentionally or not. On the helicopter ride back from the Verrazano Bridge, it became clear that we were racing a wicked thunderstorm, and that we weren’t completely assured of winning.
Storms come across the city from the west into the Long Island suburbs, and apparently this one had popped up earlier than our pilot had anticipated. By the time we were a mile or so out of Republic, the black-clouded thing had caught up to us, complete with lightning flashing on both sides of the helicopter, and enough turbulence to wipe the smiles off the respective faces of both the veteran war pilot and Frank Duffy, veteran Smug Aerial Photographer.
Fortunately, we landed safely, and Francis and I drove home through the drenching rain with a new story to share. (“We probably shouldn’t tell your mother”). He was quick to tell me that in over a hundred flights, that was as scared as he ever got, and while I could’ve lived without it myself, it was a great honor to have been on the flight that actually frightened Frank Duffy.
I think back on that day because you could say it was one of the last times I saw “Frank” in action. Sharp-eyed boatsman that he was, he could see plainly that at 69, the tide was slowly turning, and the river of his life was getting harder to navigate. My parents’ glory days; Columbus Day weekends at the Mohonk Mountain House, cruises on windjammers in Maine, taking their oldest grandchild to Ireland, fancy nights out in the city, spoiling everyone silly at Christmas, started winding down when Joan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1995.
She had wondered what was wrong with her for about a year. She didn’t have the tremors, but she more and more difficulty in moving her arms and legs, and she had developed what I now know as the “Parkie Shuffle.” We realized that Grandma Scully, who left the house for a nursing home in 1983 and died there at 98 six years later, had walked like that for years and had never had a diagnosis. Mom had been working at Hofstra University as an adjunct professor, and loving every minute of it, but now she could barely walk across the campus.
She got the diagnosis right before she and Francis were supposed to hop across the ocean for another adventure. I think it was Italy. Right before she left, she started taking dopamine. And she was practically jogging when she came back. It was miraculous, but it was also temporary. The level of dopamine would have to keep being increased as the disease progressed, and the disease would eventually win.
So around that time, Francis started looking into a new option for old folks called Life Care, which he no doubt learned about one morning while eating an Entenmann’s sticky bun with the New York Times Sunday Real Estate Section spread out across the table and the other sections spread all over the couch behind him. In a Life Care Community, you put a very large sum of money down as a deposit and you chose between living in a cottage (my parents’ choice) or an independent living apartment. Once you can’t handle that, you move to right into assisted living. From there you go to skilled nursing and from there you slide into the back of a Caddy.
There were two Life Care Communities on Long Island, both in Suffolk County: One all the way at the tip of the East End in Orient called Peconic Landing, and one about five miles south of Port Jefferson called (in a stroke of marketing genius) Jefferson’s Ferry. They kicked the tires on Peconic Landing, but ultimately settled on Jefferson’s Ferry.
Meanwhile, a year and a half after safely landing in a helicopter at Republic Airport, the old Irish Bachelor met a not-as-old Irish and Dutch Cat Lady, and True Love happened. And as you know, it doesn’t happen every day.
Trisha and I are both the youngest child in our families, me of five and she of ten. I was 36 and Trisha was 28, so we were both welcomed warmly and with much relief into each other’s new families. Some of our older brothers and sisters had all taken turns disappointing our parents by “living in sin” before marriage. So we knew what we were getting into (not that we cared very much). So to smooth it over, we announced that we were engaged before we announced that we moving into an apartment together across the street from my parents’ church, Holy Name of Mary.
Being a city teacher, Mom was hipper than Francis. She still never got used to the idea of people living together before they got married, but she realized that to question it would be, in one of her favorite expressions, “like shoveling shit against the tide.” I told her about it first, and she was worried about how Francis was going to take it. Twenty years before, when one of my siblings was “living in sin”, Francis asked me out of nowhere what I thought about it. I was 16 and I told him I thought it was pretty cool. He snarled and said, “I’m sickened by it.”
He inherited his religious traditions directly from his immigrant parents and he never saw a need to change them. But now the old dog didn’t have the same bite.
So this is the way the conversation went down in June of 2000:
Me: “Hey, you know that old apartment building on South Grove Street across from the church?”
Francis: “Sure. What about it?”
Me: “Trisha and I are moving into an apartment there next week.”
Francis (after a very long pause): “Where do you park there?”
Me: You can park overnight in the village lot on Hawthorne.”
Francis got to know and love Trisha. He called all his daughters-in-law, “dear.” We had already established that the McCloskey family nursery and florist business in Rego Park, Queens had been getting an annual order for years from a lady named Joan Duffy in Valley Stream who wanted to make sure there was a nice fresh flower arrangement on the Scully Plot at St. John’s Cemetery next door. Jack’s father, Theodore McCloskey, had actually started the business next to the cemetery in the 1920’s to serve all the good grave-decorating Catholics in the surrounding neighborhood. Theodore also built one of the original houses in the beach community of Point Lookout, three houses up the block from the Town Beach. That’s where Trisha was living when we met.
Francis was never a shopkeeper, and he never had a house on the beach, so he asked his “dear” Trisha lots of questions because he liked to learn about people. And when he learned how far back Jack McCloskey went with Point Lookout, he took some aerial pictures of the town and Jack’s house at various altitudes while out on a Granard Associates gig. When Trisha presented those pictures to her dad, Jack was stopped in his tracks. He said, “Wowww! That’s something!” And Francis didn’t need to do it, of course. Just like when he bought me the signed Mookie Wilson / Bill Buckner Picture, he just said to himself, “I bet you Jack McCloskey would like that.”
At our wedding rehearsal dinner at the Point View Inn, my father stood up to make his toast. He wished us all the best, then he looked straight at me. I had long burned the bridge and left the dopey bastard on the other side. In the eyes of my father, and my friend Francis, I was a fully realized great guy.
And this is what he said: “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”
For me, it was sort of like when Harry Bailey says, “to my brother George. The richest man in town!” That’s it. Nothing to add to that. The movie’s over. Merry Christmas.
It was actually Christmas Day a year and a half later when Trisha and I took possession of the House on Duffy’s Creek. We had looked at other houses, but none of them had creeks, and none of them had the family discount built into the price. Still, Francis sort of tried to talk us out it. I think he was embarrassed at how much work it needed, that he had let it slide too much in between pursuing his passions, driving my mom everywhere, and grabbing naps. To quote mom: “I’m sorry this place is such a wreck. I was sick and your father couldn’t give a good god damn.”
And when he thought something was not your best idea, he’d always say, “ahhh, you don’t wanna do that!” Which Trisha was the first to point out to me is in itself a very odd thing to say. Once my sister’s boyfriend, in his forties at the time, told Francis that he was thinking about getting a new tattoo. Francis said, “ahhh, Ed, you don’t wanna do that!” And Ed looked at him dumbfounded and said, “I’m 45 years old, Mr. Duffy. I’ll do what I want!”
So, despite, “ahhh, you don’t wanna buy this place!”, we did what we wanted, and he was just as happy not to have to deal with real estate people or hire his own lawyer, as they were already late in getting out of the house and into Jefferson’s Ferry because Joan had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier that year. She was wearing a chemotherapy wig at our wedding. It’d been a tough year and he had enough on his plate.
So when we met them for breakfast after church at the Golden Reef Diner in Rockville Centre on Christmas Morning 2001, they were staying at a local hotel so they could have dinner at my sister and brother-in-law’s house, and we were living in their house.
Over time, Jefferson’s Ferry became home for them, and Jedwood Place became home for Trisha. I was fine all along.
I love gardening because my mom taught me to love it when I was very young. I had a designated “diggy spot” in the corner of the backyard. One day I sometime in the 1960’s, I was playing in that very diggy spot when my father came along and said to me, “you know, this little plot here, this is your piece of the Earth. Did you ever think of that? The whole planet Earth, but you’ve got this one little piece.”
Fast-forward forty years, and Francis and I standing in the same yard at a family party that my wife and I are hosting for his 75th birthday. I tell them that he told me when I was five that this was my little piece of the Earth. He said, “Wow, you really took that one to heart, didn’t you.” Yeah. I did.
Unless the Coronavirus or something else kills me before I get the chance, I will probably move upstate to Copake Falls permanently at some point and we will sell this house someday. And when that day comes, I know I can speak for Trisha when I say I will cry and cry and cry and cry some more.
Meanwhile, after everyone was settled, Trisha and I brought our gardening skills out to Jefferson’s Ferry. We planted bulbs and annuals and shrubs and hybrid tea roses all around their cottage. It was a very comfy place, and despite mom’s health, my parents were pretty happy there.
But as so many things that end up defining our lives do, the dementia that stole from Francis every memory I’ve shared with you snuck up on him, and it overwhelmed him and us before we knew it.
I don’t know if he was aware. If he was, he wouldn’t have breathed a word of it. One the phone, my mother would inform me (after telling me every single pain she was experiencing that day and asking me if I got Final Jeopardy), “your father is starting to lose his marbles. He’s forgetting things all the time.” And you think to yourself, OK, he’s an old man, old men forget stuff all the time. And he’d get on the phone and you’d ask him how he was doing and he’d say, “I’m fiiiiine!,” because he’d say that if he had blood gushing out of his head.
2004: Francis’ 75th Birthday in the backyard at Duffy’s Creek
2014: Francis’ 85th Birthday at Duffy’s Creek
2014: Francis’ last visit to the house he bought in 1955
And then he started getting lost. I’m not sure if it was a flying around in a helicopter gig, but he went to the city on some sort of Granard Associates job, and it would be his last. He could not remember how to get back from the city. Somehow he eventually did, but it took him hours and hours and scared the living bejesus out of my mother.
So no more driving to the city. He scared himself enough to decide that on his own. But then he got lost again driving from Jefferson’s Ferry to my sister’s house in Lynbrook. This began a several-month negotiation to get the car away from him, which my mom was actually against, because Francis not being able to drive her around anymore meant the end of the last physical freedom she had.
Then he fell and broke his leg. And that was the end of independent living in the cottage. My parents were relocated to a perfectly nice assisted-living apartment.
And then he fell again, and mom had to be moved to skilled nursing, and when he got out of the hospital, they were living separately.
And a month after their 60th wedding anniversary, my mother was taken to the hospital after being found unresponsive. (As soon as I heard “your mother” and “unresponsive” in the same sentence, I knew it was just about over).
On a Sunday morning in August of 2012, I drove Francis to Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson to see his wife. I spoke to the doctor while he sat with her, so I got to be the first to know that she had pneumonia and she had about a week left.
As she slept, I delivered that bad news to him as gracefully as I could. Then I tried again, with slightly different graceful words. The third time through it landed. He looked at her sadly and he said what I now say every time I have to go to a wake and make somebody feel better:
“No matter how much time you get, you always want more.”
We got seven and a half more years of Francis. There’d be good and not-so-good monthly visits. It was always wonderful to see him, but at the same time it was sort of like visiting a museum every month to find someone had stolen another couple of your favorite paintings off the wall. One year, he’d forget that mom was dead and he’d ask when that happened, the next, he’d forget who she was entirely. One year he’d want to know all about the iphone gadget I was using to show him the old family pictures, the next year he’d sleep in the wheelchair and wouldn’t wake up the entire time. One year, he’d be pleasantly surprised to see that I had brought the books he had written, the next year those books may as well have been copies of the Reader’s Digest. One year, he’d remembered where I lived and what I did, the next he looked right through me with no recognition at all.
But one thing remained constant, right until that last visit on February 15th.
Francis’ eyes would light up when he smiled. I mean literally. The same eyes that could throw angry poison darts at you could smile straight into your soul like morning light sparkling on an Adirondack lake. And everybody from the blue-eyed blonde girl in his English class at William Bryant High School to the girls at the nurse’s station at Jefferson’s Ferry loved that smile.
And when he smiled, it reminded me of everything good. Though he pretty much stopped talking in the year before his death, I could usually count on at least one good Francis smile during our visit, usually directed at the dog.
It made it OK, that smile. It stopped time. I could put it in my pocket, drop it into the gas tank of the car and drive home on it.
You know who doesn’t smile? Trump. As a matter of fact, when I thought of this subject-changing pivot in our narrative, I did some research, painful as it was. If you Google Image “Trump Smile”, the first two subheadings are “transparent” and “smug”, only because “shit eating” wouldn’t make it through the algorithm. He smiles like he just got back from a lynching with the boys and nobody has found the body yet. He smiles like he just got off the phone with Vladimir Putin and they’ve figured out a way to shut the electrical grid down on Election Day. He smiles like somebody just told him about a new way to steal from you.
Furthermore, because of Trump, I believe that reincarnation is one possible afterlife scenario. Born fourteen months after Hitler committed suicide? That’s a creepy coincidence if you ask me. Of course, back in 2015, more than one person told me that any comparison to Hitler was a false equivalence that invalidated my argument.
To those people now: Do you like apples?
Actually, if you want to be Catholic about it instead of Hindu, I believe that the motherfucker is the Devil Incarnate.
Actually, I ran all this by my wife and my son. We’re all Copake Falls Episcopalians at heart now, but I was born to doubt. I asked them if they believed that someone could be born evil. Nature vs. Nurture. One of my favorite unanswerable questions. They said no. I said, well then, could any one of this in this room theoretically become as evil as Trump if we had been raised to be so? That is, if we had been raised by nasty, heartless racists who worshipped the God of Money, who provided us with shortcuts and free passes through every one of life’s milestones, who taught us to lie, to steal, to cheat, to bully, to abuse, to hate, to generally just be an unrepentant, unapologetic smirking asshole who enjoys making people suffer?
They said yes. But I still think he’s Hitler. And the Devil. Because why not? So it came to a point in the conversation when my mother would have said, “I just don’t know anymore, honey,” and I went out in the yard for a cigarette.
As for what this has to do with Francis? Well, he read the New York Times cover to cover every day until he couldn’t anymore. (“You’d think I’d be smarter.”). He could have told you that Trump was Satan in a blue fat suit 50 years ago, when Young Twitler and his white-hooded father were caught discriminating against black and Puerto Rican people in their Brooklyn and Queens housing developments. Francis couldn’t take it when Trump inserted himself into everything in New York City in the 80’s and 90’s. He knew the guy was a self-promoting con man, a stupid one at that, more than likely connected to the mob, without question completely full of shit.
In fact, dopey bastard wasn’t good enough to describe this guy. In Francis-speak, Trump was an “goddamn ignoramus.” A guy who shoots his mouth off but couldn’t find his ass with both hands.
Not the guy you want in charge of a nation of 331 million people when worldwide pandemic time rolls around. Well you can’t blame me. I certainly wasn’t one of the dopey bastards who voted for a career criminal.
I wasn’t one of those gloms.
Because here are three simple assertions that I could easily prove: 1. Hillary Clinton was the most qualified person ever to run for the Presidency. 2. She would have been all over Covid-19 like a mother bear. 3. She would have borne responsibility for every death on her watch.
Even George W. Bush, who used to be our worst President, actually read books instead of holding them upside down for cameras after tear gassing innocent civilians, and when Dubya read a book at his ranch about the Spanish Flu Pandemic on one of his month-long summer vacations, he said by golly it’s almost 100 years. I should probably do something.
People questioned the idea of New York Governor Cuomo becoming a hero for doing nothing more than calmly making sense in his daily press conferences. They say he waited too long to shut everything down and made the hospitals send positive patients back to nursing homes, leading to all those dead grandmas and grandpas.
But Governor Cuomo was following federal guidelines, and certainly did not have access to the intelligence that Trump ignored going all the way back to November, while he was watching Fox News and golfing and holding hate rallies (No, no, he’s not Hitler), not to mention throwing hand grenades on Twitter so people say his name all day.
The federal government is supposed to lead in matters of national security. Even Dubya came around for a photo op on top of the remains of the World Trade Center, even though he let it happen. He didn’t tell Governor Pataki to figure it out and get back to him. At the same moment early this year that Hillary would have been shutting the entire country down and telling us how screwed we’d be if we didn’t cooperate, Trump, the fake president installed by Vladimir Putin for the express purpose of destroying the United States, looked America in the eye with that transparent, smug grin and said the virus was a hoax, said it would go away on its own in the summer, said all his pasty, brainwashed evangelical zombies could get their nails done and their beards trimmed for church on Easter, right before a big, sweaty sit-down brunch at Denny’s.
And now that we have “flattened the curve” in New York, any leader who understands the concept of leadership would say, “Hey, look what they did in New York! The whole country could to do that!” Instead the goddamn ignoramus politicizes quarantines and masks and convinces the zombies that he, and they, are smarter than the scientists. And besides, if an evil Democrat like Andrew Cuomo tells you something is a good idea, you would just be a sheep to follow along.
And here on Long Island, as in too many other places, we got to watch Trumpbilly Covidiots on News 12 waving American flags, berating objective reporters who are giving them publicity in the first place only because they’re a sentient accident on the side of the road, bitching and moaning because masks are an inconvenience and besides, they couldn’t get their mani-pedis done by Korean women, or get served their red meat at Applebee’s by minimum wage brown-skinned workers. Especially when compared to the Black Lives Matter protests that began several weeks later (and should continue indefinitely as long as they have to) when millions of people took to the streets to protest something insidious, immoral and deadly, the willful ignorance and gleeful obnoxiousness of these people complaining about having to make small sacrifices for the larger good make me hate the island and the country I love.
You want to know how stupid some people are? There was a woman at one of these protests; track suit, frosted blonde hair helmet, big glasses, screaming “yoo-wa faaake newzzz!” at the News 12 Reporter. I swear I had seen her before and later it hit me. Women dye their hair all the time, and wasn’t she the one who went to visit Benner’s Farm in Setauket, found out that Minnie the Cow would be hamburgers in a couple of weeks, then came back with her friends to protest against a beloved local farmer who invites children onto his family farm to learn things, carrying a sign that said, “Animal Lives Matter!” while wearing a leather jacket, with a matching leather boots and leather handbag?
You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a glom these days.
And now people are getting sick and dying in record numbers in Florida, in Texas, in Arizona, places where Trumpbilles are a measurable percentage of the population, rather than people who the majority of sensible New Yorkers have learned can usually be stepped around like land mines, except when you tell them they have to wear masks. The emergencies in these places seems like they’re just getting started as I write this, and I’m not the least bit happy that I called this a month ago, or that these dopey bastards are going to kill other peoples’ Francis with their recklessness.
We’ve shown here in New York that relatively simple measures can slow the spread of Covid-19. We’ve also shown how horribly deadly it can be, especially to the elderly. Republican governors refuse to execute those measures, because they are Republicans first, humans second. I wonder how many red hats who lose their parents or grandparents in the next month or two will turn around and call somebody a pussy for wearing a mask at the grocery store? They don’t call ’em deplorables for nothin’.
You could make the case that part of the plan has become to kill people on purpose. Trump (or Hitler, or The Devil) enjoys human suffering, and apparently he’s not alone in this. I could easily prove that assertion, too. (see “babies in cages”). I believe that he does not care how many people die on his watch. It’s almost like a badge of honor to this pig that we have more than a quarter of the world’s Covid-19 deaths. And besides, dead people can’t vote.
So knowing what you know about my father’s underlying health conditions, you know that I cannot state for a fact that this sloppy, chaotic, cynical, repugnantly evil response to a national emergency actually led to his death.
But I can’t not say it, either.
My name is John Duffy. You killed my father. Prepare to get ripped a new one.
For months, when it became clear that the virus was coming this way, Trump did nothing. He had a big assignment to finish and he was going to be graded on it, but he decided he would just fake his way through it ‘cause that’s what his mommy and daddy taught him, along with telling him that everything the blacks do is bad, which is the sole reason why he fired Obama’s pandemic response team. He also had to loot the federal government to give tax breaks to his donors, enablers as bad if not worse than his elected party members. We paid $6000 more in taxes after that. It went straight into the My Pillow Guy’s pocket.
The federal response to the Covid-19 Coronivirus Pandemic of 2020 has been a horrible, horrible shitshow that has led to waves of human suffering that simply did not have to happen. We only get so many years, and of course anyone who hasn’t actually gotten sick or who didn’t see their income disappear overnight this year can’t really complain. But just taking away a year of graduations and baseball games and playgrounds and gym workouts and weddings and birthdays and funerals and visits to grandma and grandpa’s house, just taking away these precious moments of people’s lives, is in itself a tragedy.
Francis’ youngest grandson would have been ready to start his first paying job as a counselor at the Valley Stream community day camp in two weeks. He enjoyed attending the camp for seven years, then volunteered as a junior counselor last summer. If I let myself think about how my son and all those little kids are getting ripped off, I get angrier than a generally happy-go-lucky guy should get. There’s no Camp Barrett because the President of the United States didn’t want to upset the Chinese Government, because he thought they could help him get re-elected. There’s no Camp Barrett because people voted for a fucking game show host to lead the free world.
But you can’t blame it all on one person, even if he is the devil or Hitler reincarnated. The insanity that defines American life right now was, or course, years in the making.
So with the sincerest of apologies to Mr. Rogers, in times of crisis, look for the scumbags.
We could go all the way back to Roger Ailes and Richard Nixon, who perfected the dark art of vilifying your fellow American (not only minorities, but Agnew’s “pointy headed liberal college professors” as well), in order to win votes because they knew that lazy people loved to hate. I could show you where the seeds were first sown of portraying the other party not as “the loyal opposition” but as less than American, and how they co-opted our common flag and turned it into a hate symbol. I could sew Ronald Reagan into this, with his union busting and his welfare queens. And Daddy Bush and Willie Horton. I could weave you through how John McCain let himself get talked into Sarah Palin and inadvertently spawned the Dumb And Racist As Fuck And Proud Of It Movement that swept much of White, Red-State America in 2008, and has now reached feverish levels of scary. But we just don’t have time. I’ve just crossed 20,000 words and you’ve got other stuff to do.
So I’ll stop ranting and just put it as two simple questions : 1) After three and a half chaotic, divisive, exhaustingly cruel years of Trump, how the hell can anybody still support this guy? 2) How could anyone add two and two together and not conclude that the Republican Party is standing on the neck of democracy as they murder your country in broad daylight with the cameras rolling?
As Francis J. Duffy lay dying in the Memory Unit of the Bove Health Center of Jefferson’s ferry in the last week of April, with nothing to be done but to wait for the inevitable, I woke up one morning as I wake up every morning and took a quick look at the apps.
I have friends who like Trump. Not very many, but some. We have enough in common to work around it, I suppose. Still, I cannot fathom why they think what they think. If I asked, they might tell me it has something to do with hating Democrats more. Or they might tell me that they didn’t trust career politicians and they thought a businessman was what we needed in the world’s most powerful political position.
OK, so at the end of this month, I’ll be retired from doing nothing else for the last 25 years but teaching Junior High School English. Since I have some spare time, I’d be happy to intubate you if you need to be placed on a ventilator. I’ve never done it, but look how smart I am.
Or they might tell me that they liked how he speaks his “mind” and “tells it like it is.”
Ok, well, I was a successful and beloved teacher. I regularly told parents that their children were stupid and had no hope. I spoke my mind. I told it like it was. I found that people appreciate that quality in teachers. I also regularly asked parents where they came from and if they were here legally. Because, hey, I pay taxes.
I hope I don’t have to explain that I’m being sarcastic. I know I’m really good at it. I learned it on my father’s knee.
On January 20th, 2017, I made a conscious decision to not to post anything political on Facebook ever again, and I haven’t. Because I can’t get into it with them, because the only purpose would be to change their minds and tragically, I’m not going to.
So I suffer through other people’s posts and I don’t engage. And I showed great restraint that April morning when, as the death toll was closing in on 50,000, as that raging asshole wanted the governors to be nicer to him so he’d be more incli