Travels With Mookie, or It’s Kind Of A Dump But It’s Our Dump

Version 2It’s been another long, inexcusable break from blogging, but for better or worse, A Creek Runs Through It rises from the ashes today. Today, it’s time to go for a good, long walk. If you’re up for it, Mookie and I would be pleased to take you along on a tour of Valley Stream, Long Island, New York, or at least a nice, big chunk of it.

Of course, we’re wired very differently, and our respective life experiences are very different as well, so no doubt Mookie would at some points be putting things in a more positive light for you than I might. But he doesn’t speak English, and he doesn’t blog. So today I’m your somewhat unreliable narrator.

We are eight summers and seven winters into walking our turf together now, Mookie and I, and we’ve interacted with hundreds of our neighbors along the way. And I’ve learned to appreciate his perspective. As a writer named Edward Hoagland wrote about dog training theory, I’ve learned ”to open up myself the possibility of becoming partly a dog.” We even negotiate over which way we’re heading on our walks, since he knows his way around as well as I do. If he could speak English, and he could blog, he’d just look at you with a big smile and say, “Isn’t this great?” But then again, he would say that about every place he’s been.

Futhermore, my dog believes that every person who opens every house or car door as we’re walking by has arrived in his field of vision purposely to see him and tell him what a beautiful big dog he is. He collects people. We’re just walking by your house and you happen to walk out your front door or get out of your car. Mookie stops dead in his tracks, squares his paws, sucks in his gut and targets his prey (you) with his best Labby smile, as if to say, “Hey! Hey you! Here I am! I love you! Wanna say hi waggy waggy?”

He’s very good at it and he scores a “Hey, Buddy!” or a smile back at the very least almost every time. Subsequently, he’s made me like people a little more in general. They’re actually not so bad, most of them.

Yes, my dog loves it here in Valley Stream. So does my son, whose grandparents moved here from Astoria, Queens in 1955, lived for 46 years on a house on a creek and raised five children in it. My son is already planning to send us away someday and buy this house. For the record, that never occurred to me when I was 14. I’m glad he likes it.

Me, I’m the youngest of those five children and right now the I’m guy who lives with his family of three people, three cats and a dog in that same house on that same creek. Do I love living in ValIey Stream? Well, honestly, a lot of the time I’m pretty much awash in ambivalence. I’ve met a lot of great people here, and a couple of soreheads. Plus I suppose it would be impossible not to feel affection for a place where you’ve spent most of fifty-five years and three months.

On the other hand, most of fifty-five years and three months is a very, very long time to live in the same anywhere. I feel like the place where I live could be a lot better if people in general had different priorities. But that’s true of all of Long Island, where people often have some really ass-backwards ideas about what’s important. And I will say this: What strengths Valley Stream does have put it way ahead of a lot of places not only on Long Island, but also in America in general.

So I’m going to take a cue from Mookie and try to keep it positive when I can. We’re going on a big, circuitous, approximately five-mile walk, but we’re going to take our time, and sometimes go back in time. Mookie will need to read his pee mail on the poles and trees, and I’ll be telling you some stories and acting as your tour guide. The goal is to see a place, a town in America in 2018, close up for what it is, as well as what it was and where it seems to be going. Remember, no matter who we happen to meet along the way, Mookie loves them. As for us, you’d probably agree with me that any day is a good day for a walk, and most people are likable enough. So I’d like to show you around our hometown. At its best, it’s a microcosm of the best things about our country. At its worst, maybe not so much. You wanna go for a walk? Come on! Let’s go for a walk!

The walk starts from the house in which I was conceived and raised, and where I live more or less happily today. The house is on a winding street that follows a winding creek, and it’s called Jedwood Place for no good reason. In that house, on a 60 x 100 plot of land abutting tidal waters flowing in and out from Jamaica Bay (home of many interesting birds and one big-ass airport), I have been a baby, a son, a little brother, a snotty teenager, an occasional host of rowdy parties, a smart kid, a troublemaker, a mostly frustrated , bored but sporadically inspired young adult, a lot of peoples’ friend “Duff” who lives down the block from South High, a college student, a guy who’s been in his parents’ house too long, a guy carrying laundry and Ancona pizza on a visit home, a happy and loyal husband, a pleasant enough neighbor, a not-so-awful father and the guy with the big yellow dog.

Two big, fat side notes before we go walking (you can use this time to stretch, maybe tie your shoes. Mookie Dog will wait patiently on the front lawn and sniff the air) :

Note One: There is no other Jedwood Place on the face of the earth. But after 55 years of using the same mailing address, the name “Jedwood” feels as much a part of my name as my name. Yet there is no logical explanation why Mr. William Gibson, the man whose development company built my neighborhood in the early 1950’s and who built most of the neighborhoods of South Valley Stream thirty years before that, would have named a street “Jedwood Place.” The two most frequent citations of “jedwood” that you’ll find on Google refer to a hunting ground in Scotland and “jedwood justice”, which was a practice rooted in 19th Century Maryland wherein a person suspected of a crime was put to death without trial. Neither of these things have anything to do with Jedwood Place. Hopefully, they never will.

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Note Two: Jedwood Place is in it’s own little development, bordered by Duffy’s Creek and dead-ending at Valley Stream South High School. Mr. Gibson called it “West Sunbury” but that name never stuck. The other three street names in this little development are Cluett Road, Sanford Court and Virginia Court. A Google search reveals that the man who developed the process of pre-shrinking fabrics known as “sanforization” was named Sanford Lockwood Cluett. Hmmmm. I have no idea if he was a friend of Mr. Gibson, though they were contemporaries, and captains of industry, sort of. I could find no mention of Sanford Cluett, who was born in upstate Troy, NY,  hanging out on Long Island, though if I were from Troy I guess I’d jump at the chance. And oddly enough, Sanford Cluett was married to a woman whose maiden name was Camilla Elizabeth Rising, and the land Jedwood Place was built on was once part of the Riesing Farm, a different spelling but coincidental just the same. I have no idea who Virginia was. All this is interesting to me (if not to you, as you and Mookie wait for your promised walk) because Jedwood feels like part of my name, and it’s only because somebody pulled it out of nowhere in 1950.

Such is the randomness of our existence. Creek Street would have worked just as well.

I wanted you to know all this before we go because I ‘ve spent most of my life walking or driving around in circles, starting from and ending at Jedwood Place, of which there is only one on the face of the earth. And over the last seven years, in partnership with our beautiful, loyal, insanely friendly Labrador Retriever, I’ve taken walking in circles starting from Jedwood Place to a whole new level.

During the twenty-five years in which I was between dogs, I had often wished I had a dog just so I could go for a walk without having a destination in mind (and of course because dogs are generally so, so much better company than people). As we’ve established, Mookie’s mission in life is to say hi to as many people as he can, which in his best-case scenario means you rub his face and he stares deeply into your eyes and tries to kiss you. If you were actually here, you’d know that already, and as you may have guessed, I’m somewhat more reserved. But I enjoy all this about him greatly, and hundreds of people we’ve met on our walks have as well.

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Everybody loves Mookie. He’s like walking around with 100-pound bag of magic happy dust.

And so (surprise), having a friendly, good-looking dog and taking long, rambling walks around town is a great way to observe and often meet people, and when you observe and often meet people, sometimes you get talking to them. And when you get talking to people, you get to know the true character of a place. And I can say without any reservation that I (and to an extent, Mookie) know the character of Valley Stream – at least the south half of it – better than anyone, particularly anyone who works at Money Magazine.

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Why Money Magazine? Well, apparently, somebody at Money Magazine really likes Valley Stream, so much so that earlier this year Money Magazine voted it the Best Place To Live in New York State. For heaven’s sake why? Well, this is what they said:

First settled by Scottish immigrants in 1834, Valley Stream is a Nassau County village that attracts residents with a reputation of being “neat, clean and safe”. The location is a big draw—it’s just 35 minutes from Manhattan, near two major highway arteries, and served by the Long Island Railroad. Snapple originated in Valley Stream, which also boasts several historic colonial sites, a diverse population, and a close-knit suburban community.

So, to use a buzz phrase that my boss loves, “let’s unpack that.”

First of all, Snapple. Really? What the hell is Snapple doing in three sentences of copy about Valley Stream being the best place to live in New York State? And I believe we have one colonial site. This is why I mostly avoid magazines.

Second of all, I’m very aware of the “major highway arteries” and the Long Island Railroad, thank you so much, as well as being five miles from JFK Airport. It’s often very noisy around here. It’s not “Manhattan noisy”, or even “Queens noisy”. You can still hear the birds. There still are occasional moments of relative quiet. But if you listen for it, there’s almost always a dull roar of the motor noise of  trains, plains, automobiles and leaf blowers emanating from our surroundings, and I’m not entirely sure that this isn’t all slowly driving me insane.

Third of all, neat, clean and safe. These are just about the most relative terms you could string together to describe a place. Your idea and my idea of the threshold for earning those adjectives could be very similar or very different, depending on how much you are affected by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

We’ll get to “clean” and “neat” when we get walking. (“Yawwwnnn!!!,” says Mookie). First, let’s talk about “safe”. “Safe” is ultimately what makes or breaks the reputation of a place. But again, it’s completely relative. Do I feel “safe” walking with Mookie at night through Valley Stream? Well, yeah, ‘cause we’re the scariest looking two guys out there if you’re up to something, so that’s a moot point. Do I feel safe if my 14-year old son or my wife is out after dark? Of course not, because I love them and I worry about them and I want to be with them all the time so I know where they are, but that would be true wherever we lived. That’s got nothing to do with Valley Stream.

Less than a mile to my west is Green Acres Mall, which has grown like an ink stain since it was built in the 1950’s. It has, over the years, fostered a reputation as being a slightly dangerous, crime-ridden place. So much so that the first neighborhood we’re going to visit on our walk changed it’s name from “Green Acres” to “Mill Brook” in the early 1980’s to distinguish itself from the shopping mall, a decision that at the time smacked of racism, because many of the shoppers at the mall are people of color from neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. This is ironic in retrospect since all the ethnic groups that people in Green Acres were afraid of are now raising families and planting flowers in front of the houses they own in Mill Brook.

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An aerial picture of Green Acres Shopping Mall taken by my father from a helicopter. He actually did this professionally as you can tell, and was also pretty damn funny in his prime, as you can also tell. Note the date on the picture. Green Acres has expanded yet again in the last 16 years.

Within the last three years, Green Acres applied for and received a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, otherwise known as a big fat tax break) from the Town of Hempstead to expand yet again. Part of their strategy for legally cheating on taxes and stealing money from people in Valley Stream was to sell Green Acres as a “tourist attraction”, since more than 50% of the customer base comes from outside Nassau County. The mall is literally right on the New York City border. And so, when people on Valley Stream social media pages want to make snide comments about people from the city, they call them tourists. Isn’t that clever?

Statistically, I don’t know how true the perception of Green Acres Mall being unsafe is or ever was. But I can tell you this: The creek amplifies noise. All creeks do. It’s a property of water. If there’s a particularly egregious crime at the mall (I’d say an average of between 6-10 times a year depending on how hot the summer is and how much the giant flat-screen TV’s are going for on Black Friday) you’ll know about it at Duffy’s Creek. You’ll hear the angry roar of helicopters circling overhead (followed seconds later by the angry roar of people on the Valley Stream News Facebook page reporting helicopters circling overhead), and the apocalyptic sirens from emergency vehicles racing down Sunrise Highway and Mill Road.

At times like these, Green Acres is less a shopping mall than an encroaching monster that wants to eat my quality of life. Of course, it would certainly be LESS safe here if there WERE no circling helicopters and emergency vehicles ready to respond in minutes to intervene in whatever nonsense is going down. We pay some of the highest property taxes in the country for that sort of thing. And Roosevelt Field, the bigger shopping mall to the east bordered by the much more wealthy community of Garden City, makes it into Newsday for spectacularly stupid crimes as much as Green Acres does.

And the other 99% of the time, when there are no egregious crimes being committed, it’s just a shopping mall. And me, I hate shopping malls. They’re gross. I like forests. And lakes. But if you’re OK with shopping malls, go ahead and visit Green Acres Mall sometime. Don’t worry. It’s plenty safe. It’s a tourist attraction. Go there and waste your money.

Meanwhile, now that we’ve established that “safe” is an illusion that means absolutely nothing no matter where you live, let’s get to that walk. As you look across the street from my house, the first thing you will say is “What the…?” And then you will smile your dopiest smile, because you’ve just had your first look at the house of my longtime neighbor and friend John and his wife Amanda who live across the street. John and I disagree vehemently on politics, so we never ever talk about it when we see each other. However, I have great respect for and truly enjoy his execution of the American rights and traditions that allow one to do whatever the hell one wants to one’s house within local zoning regulations. Plus he does our taxes, and we always do pretty well. So I have no problem living across the street from a house that has been remodeled to resemble a giant log cabin.

Yeah. That’s right. A giant log cabin. AND, there are two “showcases” in the front of the house. In one of those showcases you’ll see a life-size gorilla statue, along with a life-size guy who looks a little like John himself sitting in a chair in a white suit and a Panama hat, with a parrot on his shoulder, a totem pole and a monkey scaling a tree behind him. In the other showcase you’ll see a bear, several small hippos and a family of prairie dogs. You’ll also notice the two grazing bison attached to the second floor balcony and the almost life-sized plastic representation of a Tennessee Walking Horse mounted on the fence. Completing the look is a stone wall in the corner of the property with a faux blue pond made of concrete, engraved with various animal drawings, “flowing” out to the sidewalk.

I’ve seen a lot of people take pictures of John’s house. Selfies, mostly. I find it extremely amusing. And I know he doesn’t give a flying rat what anyone thinks of his log cabin, which another reason I like him. And since we have Valley Stream South High School up at the top of the dead-end of Jedwood Place, we have lots of pedestrian and vehicle traffic passing by our houses – and lots of very loud teenagers – when school is open. As a matter of fact, you literally can’t get out of our driveway between 7:15 and 7:40 a.m. on school days as the street is one long convoy of cars dropping those same teenagers off at school, most of whom live no more than a mile away. My friends all walked to school here, even the ones who lived two miles away. Most of them are still alive. Just sayin.’

As we set out on our five-mile walk (did I mention that?) we have three possible trails: We can walk towards Valley Stream South High School, my alma mater, where we don’t give damn about trespassing on the field because of the school taxes we pay (and Mookie has lots of friends in high places anyway). They’re currently transforming the South football field from natural to artificial turf, which Mookie and I, along with the sandpipers, agree is a really stupid idea, but we had no say in it at all. Walking up that way, we might see my next-door neighbor, originally from the Philippines, who Mookie has loved since he was a puppy, and how could you not? We might see Raffi, who doesn’t like Mookie sniffing at him, but who feeds me really good noodle and pastry stuff after Ramadan so I give him jars of homemade bread and butter pickles on my summer vacation. (All my other friendly neighbors get them. I don’t concern myself with the unfriendly ones, and Mookie knows not to stop in front of their houses).

We might see Bob walking his dog Eli the other way and we might say something about the Mets. One family of Mookie’s best friends moved to Florida last year and we both miss them. But he’s recently worn some other people down at the end of the street who now say hi to him by name. Up at the high school soccer field, Mookie might get to chase a ball off the leash if no one is around, but if it’s Sunday, they’ll be twenty gentleman of various ages, all in way, way better shape than I am, playing The Beautiful Game like their lives depended on it. When school is open, Mookie collects high school students. They’re not so bad, even with the littering. I digress.

If we take trail #2 and walk up Cluett, we’ll see a house that belongs to some wonderful neighbors of ours that is currently being renovated and has been raised way high off the ground to survive the next big hurricane. From what I can see, I like their chances. Mookie will check to see if his very best friend Vacco is relaxing in the hammock that hangs from the walls of his spotless garage, and if so will have to charge at him and wag his tail maniacally for a face rub while Vacco and I talk about our solar panels.

But we’re going to take trail #3 and walk up Jedwood towards Mill Road and around the Creek, into Mill Brook, which I still call Green Acres. There’s a story I want to tell you about the path on the other side. Walking up to the corner, we’ll pass about twenty houses, and Mookie has friends in at eight of them. He’s working on the other twelve.

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You can’t get there from here. The abandoned path at the end of my street that leads to where the bridge isn’t.

The Mill Brook community (when it was Green Acres) used to be connected to Jedwood via a pedestrian bridge over Duffy’s Creek (called, not surprisingly, “the Bridge”) but it was deemed unsafe after a kid got stabbed there (long, stupid story) and it was demolished, meaning most kids from Mill Brook now either walk or get a ride down Jedwood to get to school. So once upon a time, you, me and Mookie could’ve walked to the footpath on other side of Duffy’s Creek from the high school without going to Mill Road and passing the stores. And if the bridge were there, I could tell you about all the bottles of cheap beer and other commodities that were consumed over the years by generations of Valley Stream South students. But it isn’t. So I won’t.

Instead we have to make our way past the insane little white dog that occasionally runs out into traffic to chase after us at the corner of Jedwood and Mill, and walk north past the stores.

Here’s the good news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. There’s a dry cleaner, a deli, a pizza place which I don’t like but my son does, a Chinese take-out that everybody likes, and deli that’s really a bodega, which is different from a deli but I don’t have the patience to explain to you why that is if you don’t already know. There is a certain convenience in having these things in your neighborhood. I guess that makes them convenience stores.

Here’s the bad news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. 1) It has not been updated since 1950. It’s shabby and run-down looking and there is 68 years of gum embedded in the sidewalk. They use the steel doors use that you see in the picture when they’re closed, which makes the neighborhood look worse than it is, but I suppose it’s better than broken plate glass, which would do the same. 2) Nassau County owns a strip of land next to the row of stores that abuts Duffy’s Creek. They have not cleaned this area in my lifetime. It’s a wasteland of weeds, dead trees and garbage, as disgusting as anything you’ll ever see in a place where the median family income is $85,00 a year. It screams, for all the world to hear, that here in Southwest Nassau County, we just don’t give a fuck. The water spilling from the culvert under Mill Road into the creek smells like death, but more about that later, too. 3) There is a very large laundromat between the deli and the pizza place and people double park in front of it all the time. 4) The first store was a dive bar for most of my life – originally called “The Sportsman’s Rendezvous” – but has become a Nail Salon. It is one of approximately 500 nail salons in a five-mile radius. I never hung out in the dive bar, but I’m sure there were a lot less nefarious things going on in the Sportsman’s Rendezvous than there are in the Nail Salon. But that’s just me. 5) The Garbage.

The amount of garbage on the street in and around Jedwood Place, most of it originating from the row of stores, and the very loud teenagers from the high school, whom Mookie loves and who visit those stores regularly, would have cost Valley Stream our Money Magazine “Best Place To Live in New York” designation if Money Magazine had known about it. I regularly feel like the Crying Indian when I walk around and see all the garbage that kids drop on the street (and that people throw out of their car windows after dropping their kids off at the high school. Don’t worry. I see you). There was a big push back in the 70’s to get people to stop littering, because nobody really wanted to make the Indian cry. But somehow, somewhere along the line, this morphed into the idea that people are paid to pick up after you. And who the hell is the Crying Indian? If you litter on Jedwood Place, ultimately, I pick up after you for free, because I get to the point where I can’t look at it anymore. People walk around with a bottle of something and a magic rectangle everywhere they go but somehow carrying a wrapper, or that now empty bottle of something, to the next garbage can is far too great a burden. This is a Valley Stream problem and a Long Island problem in general. We spent a week in Copake, NY and a week in Saranac Lake, NY this summer. There are fewer people in these places, of course, but none of them throw their fucking garbage in the street. So it’s not like a ratio or anything. People on Long Island – though I like many of them, and Mookie loves all of them – are pigs. There, I said it.

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But Mookie, of course, doesn’t mind at all. He’s more interested in smells and finding people to say hi to than he is in aesthetics. This is one part of me that refuses to become partly a dog.

So we’re past the stores now, we’ve checked for terrapin turtles sunning themselves on the rocks next to the horrible-smelling spillway (sometimes we see our friend Steve who works at the high school looking for turtles, too). We’re around to the Right Bank of Duffy’s Creek, going down the path that runs behind the backyards in the “new” section of Mill Brook. We could have gone straight and gone through “Old Green Acres” on the streets north of Flower Road, which was the part of the development built in 1939 and features some very nice tudors and brick colonials that help keep the property value up on our little wooden box, but I would rather show you this path. I have my reasons.

Unlike much of Valley Stream, the path along Duffy’s Creek -which like Jedwood Place is outside the boundaries of the Village of Valley Stream and within the jurisdiction of the Town of Hempstead – looks pretty much the same as it did when I was a kid, but with one big difference: There’s less of it. The creek has been eroding the path for as long as they’ve been matched together. The hard surface of the path is just about gone in most places. Tall Phragmites (what my father referred to as “woozy-woozies” when he had small children and even when he didn’t) block your view of the water through most of it, except where one guy takes it upon himself to cut them all down with one of his many, many power tools so he can see the creek from his deck, which happens to be directly across the water from our house. It’s a reasonably nice place to walk your dog, as Mookie can attest. But it’s supposed to be a lot nicer. And I can prove that with a 123 page pdf file available online from the New York State Office of Storm Recovery, otherwise known as “New York Rising.”

South Valley Stream got whacked pretty well by Hurricane Sandy (or “Superstorm Sandy” if you insist, but please don’t). Being just south of Sunrise Highway, we were on the northern end of the area that got flooded. Towns south of us, East Rockaway, Oceanside and Long Beach in particular, were whacked much, much more devastatingly. (Not sure if anybody at FEMA uses the term, “whacked” to describe what happened, but I’m going with it).

About a year and a half after Hurricane Sandy surrounded our house in four feet of tidal surge on the night of October 29th, 2012, I heard about a meeting, the first in a series of meetings, at the Forest Road School, where the Mill Brook Civic Association would be taking public comments on how to spend the $3 Million in New York Rising Storm Recovery money that was apportioned to South Valley Stream. I just wanted to make sure they weren’t planning to build concrete retaining walls along my creek and declare it as a permanent open sewer, because that would really piss off the egrets. (I have a few). I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was not the plan.

New York State contracted with the Louis Berger Group as consultants to advise individual communities on how to spend the money they were getting through New York Rising. The Louis Berger Group (I saw them at the Peppermint Lounge in ’83) would work with existing community organizations to formulate and document a plan of action. The exiting community organization here was (and is) the Mill Brook Civic Association, even though Mill Brook is only about one-third of South Valley Stream. Gibson used to have a civic association but it doesn’t anymore because the old one died and I haven’t had the time to start the new one, and neither has Sean Lally.

I was wary of what the folks in the Mill Brook Civic Association were up to, so I kept haunting their meetings. Again, I was pleasantly surprised by the plan, officially published in March of 2014. Through going to the meetings, I got to know a wonderful gentleman who was leading the Louis Berger Group contingent for the project, a Dutch fellow by the name of Niek, or Neiyk. No matter. We got talking about birds. I told him that when I first moved back to my childhood home here, I documented the different bird species we saw.

I had always noticed the variety of birds around here as a kid, but I never got all citizen science about it until I was a homeowner, and they were MY birds. Way back then in 2002 we still had two gigantic maple trees out front and two Bradford pears in the back that were allowed to get out of control before our arrival, and they were all threatening to kill the house, so we eventually had to have them taken down. (We have replaced them, and then some, but trees take time). There were several giant Eastern White Pines in the neighborhood that have since been taken down or blown over in storms. Sadly, a beautiful oak tree on my next door neighbors’ property (once my grandmother’s), a tree that was probably planted along the creek by the Reising Farm owners before the houses were built, had to come down just this summer.

Big trees mean lots of birds, of course. And fewer trees mean fewer birds. And who doesn’t like birds? But sometimes where little wooden boxes are jammed together in 60 x 100 plots, you have to take down big trees, because they might kill you. And when you lose the trees, you lose the birds, who I’m sure don’t understand what the hell anyone would have against a big tree. I used to say that Duffy’s Creek was a great place to be a bird. Sadly, it’s come to the point, especially after losing the oak tree this summer, that if I were a bird, I’d probably blow this hot dog stand and move upstate.

But back when Trisha and I moved in, and we still had lots of big trees, filling up the bird feeders would get you twenty cardinals at sunset on a snowy afternoon. Waves of warblers and other migrant songbirds stopped in our trees in the spring and fall. We still have an impressive variety of waterfowl, especially in fall and winter, but every year the creek is neglected, it gets a little less populated. But in a year or so upon moving back to Jedwood Place in back in 2002, I had identified close to a hundred different species of birds in our yard and on our creek. Most of them I will never see here again because of the whole tree thing, but this little tidbit was still very impressive to Niek, or Neiyk, who had himself grown up in the Netherlands along a river (I knew that without him telling me) and was still something of a bird guy himself. At the meeting where the Louis Berger Group were unveiling the New York Rising plan for South Valley Stream, he told me that I should send him a list of those birds, and so I did.

The plan that Niek, or Nieyk and the Louis Berger Group put together was a beautiful thing. Landscaping and naturalizing the path, planting lots of trees, replacing the sewer pipes with a wetland filtration system (called a “bioswale”) that would clean the water over time. And to top it off, South Valley Stream was awarded another $3 million from New York State in “Race To The Top” money (gag me) for showing that the plan could, among other things, help bring back the birds on the list I sent to Neik, or Nieyk, who gave me some of the credit for the $3 million when nobody else did, which he didn’t have to do because all I did was count birds, but I appreciated it. I met some great people through stalking the Mill Brook Civic Association. They made me feel very optomistic about living here.

Now you may recall, a couple of paragraphs back, that this plan was published in 2014. The Town of Hempstead received the money from the State of New York to implement the plan. They’re sitting on $6 million as far as I know. And as you may have guessed from our walk today, they haven’t done shit yet, besides stick some flags in the ground and mow the grass.

But I’m hopeful. And our walk continues.

We’re around on the other side of the creek now, and in this section, past the path, there are house on both sides of the creek. There’s a style of house here, and on Rosedale Road where we emerge at Hoeffner’s Gas station on the city line (opened when the whole area was still Hoeffner’s Farm) and in the neighborhood on the other side of South High School from Jedwood, which I can only describe as the ”three little window houses”. They’re ranches with attached garages and a room jutting out towards the street with three ridiculously small windows hung in a parallel line at the top of the wall. Having been in those houses, I can tell you they’re nice from the inside. Big open floor plans and all that. They’re just kind of goofy looking from the outside.

Which brings us to two “when I was a kid” observations that are true of this neighborhood and the rest of the places we’ll pass on our walk.

  • Observation #1: Every house on every street used to look like every other house on that street. That’s not quite as true anymore, as people have remodeled, and in some cases created great Taj Mahal-like structures from the little ranches and capes they started out with. This is more true in Mill Brook / Green Acres and the “North Woodmere” section of South Valley Stream. A lot of Mr. Gibson’s streets look structurally as they did 100 years ago. As an architecture fan, I find some of the remodels classy and sharp, and others a violent assault on my senses. But, like John’s Log Cabin, I respect and admire people for making these boxes into their own personal statements to the world. It’s a very American thing to do. We haven’t built a Taj Mahal, but we’ve planted a lot of flowers and trees. That’s a human thing to do.
  • Observation #2: When I was a lad here, the community of Green Acres, as well as the development along Rosedale Road up into North Woodmere, was a primarily Jewish neighborhood. I personally went to at least five bar and bas mitzvahs. Had a great time, too, as I remember. The majority of Valley Streamers were of Italian, Jewish, German and Irish descent, like my parents, one-generation removed from apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens, just like the new folks moving in these days. People of color lived across the City Line (at the time even further, the color line was really Brookville Boulevard in Rosedale, Queens) and that’s the way it was. As a matter of fact, you should read this New York Times story from 1979 and some 2010 census statistics before we go on, so as you continue on our walk up into the heart Valley Stream, you can see how far we’ve come, and why there’s really no such thing here as an anyone’s neighborhood anymore, and that’s a good thing:

VALLEY STREAM, L.I., Aug. 15 – A crude wooden cross was set afire last night on the front lawn of a house that a black family moved into here last week.

The cross was discovered at 10:15 P.M. by Inga Grant, the mother of seven children, who had moved into the twostory, fourbedroom colonial house from Rego Park, Queens, according to the Nassau County police.

They said the family had received obscene telephone calls and that windows had been broken while it was moving into the house, at 101 Woodlawn Avenue, in this South Shore village that neighbors said was predominantly white.

A realestate agent who had an exclusive listing on the house for several months, but did not sell it to Mrs. Grant, said today that he had been receiving obscene and threatening phone calls since Aug. 1, when the sale, reported at “upward of $70,000,” was closed.

Few of the neighbors gathered near the house today expressed sympathy for the Grants. And some of them said there had been neighborhood speculation that the sale was an attempt at blockbusting that is, inducing homeowners to sell quickly by creating the fear that purchases of homes by members of a minority group will cause a loss in value.

Now here’s the Wiki for the latest demographics of South Valley Stream, not including most of the Village of Valley Stream or North Valley Stream, which for the record are equally or more diverse. The CDP is my little “census designated place”, which is relatively small in area compared to everything that’s called “Valley Stream”. It’s a little confusing, I understand:

As of the census of 2010, there were 5,962 people, 1,969 households, and 1,554 families residing in the CDP. The population density was 6,415.1 per square mile. (Holy crap). There were 2,045 housing units at an average density of 2,326.9/sq mi. The racial makeup of the CDP was 51.90% White, 23.10% African American, 0.07% Native American, 18.10% Asian, 0.00% Pacific Islander, 4.40% from other races, and 2.20% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.80% of the population.

As for the “loss of value” that haunted the dreams of Woodlawn Avenue residents 29 years ago (not all of them, of course), you might be interested to know that the average price of a house in my neighborhood today is $462,000 big ones. We just do that to keep the riff-raff out.

And I suspect, based on the unscientific method of walking around with my dog, that the 2020 census will show more even slices of pie among white, African American Hispanic or Latino and Asian. And more and more, there’s an overlap among them all. And, not for nothin’, half of us have college diplomas. So fuck you.

Sorry, I didn’t mean that. We’re just a little defensive here sometimes. It’s because of Rockville Centre and Hewlett.

Statistically speaking, concepts of race and ethnicity could someday disappear altogether in a place like Valley Stream, which is pretty noteworthy considering the attitudes of 1979, when I was in 10th grade at Italian-Jewish-Irish South High School and knew those cross burners personally, or at least their families. And, while it’s easy to say this for a white guy, and I try to be aware of the systemic, institutionalized racism that people darker than myself have to put up with all the time no matter how enlightened their community supposedly is, I believe that in some ways, we’re almost there. As people get to know their neighbors, and share the common spaces, they see each other’s colors less and less. Unless they’re beyond hope, and most of the people who were beyond hope left here years ago. Valley Stream is not perfect in this regard, but it’s become a pretty good place to walk around in whatever color skin you happened to have been born wearing.

Let’s keep walking.

We’re on Rosedale Road, which for no good reason becomes Brookfield Road when it intersects Hungry Harbor Road, which was actually named for people who were hungry. Squatters, I’m told. We’re passing a fenced-off two acres or so of woods that belongs to Long Island American Water. There’s a good story behind this little piece of woods that you should say something if you see something in, even though you can’t go in it, but I’ve already told that story in a previous blog post: https://duffyscreek.com/2016/08/07/taking-a-walk-an-abridged-10000-year-history-of-south-valley-stream and we’re crossing Mill Road again, heading up Dubois Avenue, where Du Boys used to hang out in front of the candy store and the deli at Gibson Station.

Yes, almost forty years ago, I was one of the boys. A scrawny, tag-along boy but a Verified Gibson Rat just the same. Where the Nail Salon is now (one of the five-hundred) was once Jimmy and Ronny Duffy’s “Candy Store”, which as anyone from Long Island would know is a place where you could buy candy, newspapers, magazines, greeting cards, Whiffle Bats and Spalding Balls and odd stuff hanging around like flyswatters, condoms and birthday cake candles. There was also be the obligatory pinball tables, and later video games, in the back of the store, eager to swallow the quarters of local idiots. I got pretty good at Asteroids, but never could handle Defender.

Jimmy was Ronny’s father, and their names weren’t actually Duffy. They were using Jimmy’s wife’s maiden name to avoid something or somebody, but I didn’t care. They treated me and the rest of the knuckleheads who hung around the store like Italian family. Still, in retrospect, I regard every second hanging around Gibson Station as a colossal waste of time. I guess I must have learned something from the experience, but I have no idea what. Maybe how to act more Italian, but I could never pull it off. Oh, well.

Today my favorite thing about Gibson Station (besides the fact that it is frozen in time and could be easily used for the “1979” scenes of my biopic) are the guys who make Mookie and I our bacon and egg breakfast at the Cold Cut Express. Not being invited inside, Mookie stays tied up to a parking meter no one ever feeds (shhh!!!) and usually makes at least one new friend in the time it takes to scramble two eggs. As most people in this line of work now, the guys at the Cod Cut Express are immigrants from somewhere and they work and they work and they work. They are gentleman who treat their often annoying customers with respect and I appreciate them being there, as the only time I see them is when I’m not working.

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It could have been “Duffy’s At The Station” if my lotto tickets from the Cold Cut Express had paid off. But Meli Melo sounds pretty good.

And one of these days, I have to check out Meli Melo, which is the Cajun-Creole restaurant that opened where Goldie’s, an Italian Restaurant, used to be. (“A Taste of Louisiana and Haiti”) Mookie and I had a nice conversation one morning with a guy who was working on the remodel for a long, long time. (They’d have to put the smiling clown from the Goldie’s sign back up to shoot those 1979 scenes). When Goldie’s was empty, I had a fun little dream about buying a winning lotto ticket at the Cold Cut Express and opening “Duffy’s At The Station”, but I guess now it’s too late, and I wish Meli Melo nothing but success. We’re walking north up Dubois Ave. now, leaving Du Boys at the Cold Cut Express and Du New Boys at Meli Melo to keep chasing their American dreams.

On the left side of the street are some beautiful colonial houses with big front porches that predate Mr. Gibson. Starting on the right side of Dubois and heading south are Mr. Gibson’s 1920’s era, rather unique Pointy Houses.

As I walk through all these neighborhoods, I’m privately amused when I consider that I’ve been inside at least one example of each style of house, even though the people who lived in those houses when I visited are long gone, and the people who live there now have no idea I’ve been in their houses. I still keep in touch with lots of people from high school, and they live all over, and I pass their childhood houses all the time. The kids who lived in this neighborhood either went to William L. Buck or Brooklyn Avenue School. I went to Robert W. Carbonaro, which is on back on Hungry Harbor Road around the corner from Jedwood Place.

Brooklyn Avenue is a beautiful old building from the 1920’s. Buck and Carbonaro are identical buildings, 1960’s Splanch Style, approximately two miles away from each other, at the southwest and northeast polar ends of Mookie’s turf. When our son had some accumulated trouble at Carbonaro in fourth grade, he went in to the BOCES system for a year, and then we insisted that he go back to his home district. This story is, of course, a lot more involved than what I’m telling you.

There was a new principal at Carbonaro at the time. My personal interactions with him were both pleasant and nauseating. Overall, the place seemed a bit on edge. We met some great people there, and some maybe not so much. I myself spent seven wonderfully happy years at Carbonaro from 1968 to 1975. As for our son, the district people didn’t want him to go back to Carbonaro and agreed to enroll him at Buck. That summer, the principal at Buck got in touch with me to invite my son in to look over the building (and teach him all about the new geothermal heating and cooling system that had just been installed for free by New York State) and introduce him to his teacher. They were nothing but kind. The school was a happy place. And our son ended up having his best year in elementary school.

So now every time Mookie and I walk past Carbonaro (pretty much every day) I feel a little twinge of betrayal mixed in with the nostalgia. And every time we walk past Buck, which is different but looks almost exactly the same, I’m reminded to keep an open mind, and have some faith that things have away of working themselves out.

Meanwhile, I could take you through some really drop-dead gorgeous neighborhoods at this point, the nicest streets in South Valley Stream, between Rockaway Avenue and Forest and Brooklyn Avenues, pre-Gibson colonials with big front porches set back from the street on huge plots of land with lots of big trees that don’t want to kill anyone. There are also neighborhoods like this in Central and North Valley Stream – particularly Westwood on the border of Malverne  – but we’re not going that far today, because that’s generally outside of our walking turf and I’m looking down the barrel of 8,000 words already.

We’re going straight up Rockaway Avenue, across Sunrise Highway. In short, we’re going to town. You get to see the sights, visit our fine stores and restaurants. And you get to meet David Sabatino.

Mookie’s psyched. He slipped David the tongue once when he kissed him.

First we have to wind our way along the part of Rockaway south of the highway, where you’ll pass Wondarama, where they’ve been fixing flats and replacing batteries for 45 years or so. Across the street is Temple Beth Shalom. There is a small Hasidic community that lives in some of the houses around the temple. They enjoy seeing Mookie and I out walking with them on Saturday mornings. He wags his tail for them.

Right next door to the temple are two warehouse buildings, the second a monstrosity of contemporary glass in your face architecture, which went up in the last three years. A company called International that distributes many, many bottles of booze owns both buildings. And if you say, “well, gosh, those buildings are nice for warehouses and all but they’re totally too big and out of character for the area,” Then I’d agree with you and watch your reaction when we come up on the Sun Valley Apartment Building.

Yes, folks, this is the future of Valley Stream. Five stories, 72 modern squirrel cages with Blink Fitness on the ground floor and a tennis court on the roof where in four years I have yet to see a tennis ball in flight when I happen to look up. It may yet happen.

People want to live here. They like the schools, and the parks. They even like the mall. The population is exploding. Since you’re not getting our little wooden box for under $400,000, housing is a problem. Plus, in another five years or so, the Long Island Rail Road will have burrowed through to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, finally creating direct access from Long Island train stations to the East Side of Manhattan, and as Money Magazine breathlessly told you, we could be on the next train west from Valley Stream and jostling our way through Penn Station in 35 minutes. It’s great, isn’t it? And now you can add in a couple of thousand people who would like to be jostling through Grand Central in 45 minutes, and the end result is apartment buildings, and lots of ‘em.

It’s a tide you just can’t fight. And you can take that from an experienced kayaker and worry wart. To suggest it’s “out of character” for a suburban “bedroom community” to have buildings with 74 apartments on a commercial corner is a shortsighted notion and completely out of touch with reality. This was something I had to learn. When Sun Valley was going up (and up and up) I bitched and moaned to the Deputy Mayor, a wonderful fellow who excels at debate, mostly about what I saw as the horrible aesthetics of the building. A lot of people who were watching this thing go up described it in terms of the Bronx House of Detention.

Deputy Mayor Vincent Grasso said, “Just wait until it’s done.” The Village didn’t sign off on the CO until the development company, which was making it’s first foray into Nassau County after a successfully putting people in cages in Queens and Brooklyn for years, made a series of aesthetic improvements to the building’s exterior. It was pretty amazing to me how just a clean buttress line along the top of the building and two-toned brick made it seem less like a tenement. As giant apartment buildings go, I’ve seen worse. But people still complain about it, as they are complaining about several other apartment buildings either planned or currently rising like steel Godzillas around town.

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Squirrel Cages under construction on North Central Avenue.

You want to take these folks at their word, that it’s overcrowding they are most concerned about. But Lynbrook and Rockville Centre, the next two towns down the highway, considered more affluent than Valley Stream, have always had lots of apartment buildings (albeit somewhat lower to the ground) mixed in with the beautiful houses, with more going up as we speak. And the whole damn Island is choked with people and cars already. So unfortunately, I think the overcrowding argument is a just a cover.

There is a mild strain of Trumpanzeeism, “more white, more right” thinking that still pervades, bubbling under the surface of Valley Stream, despite the diversity we’ve achieved here. You see it especially in some of the comments on social media pages and in comment threads attached to articles in the Valley Stream Herald newspaper. Case in point: A contingent of people went absolutely bugfuck last year when the Herald printed an article about a Muslim group petitioning the schools to declare Eid Al-Fatir as a school holiday. It’s an ugly little microcosm of the nativism that rages in some other parts of the country in the Age of Twitler and his MAGAT’s. For the most part, these people quickly reveal themselves for what they are and what they believe to be true about the “kind” of people moving into town. They stand out through their small-mindedness here, and the future is leaving them behind.

Up in the Adirondacks, my family used to stay near the tiny crossroads of Onchiota, NY, where the local General Store owner and Postmaster, Bing Tormey, posted signs around his little main square that became legendary. The best of these was: “You are leaving 97 of the friendlist people in the Adirondacks (plus a couple of soreheads).”

There ya go.

Me, I don’t particularly like apartment buildings. We lived in one – the really old one on Grove Street across from Holy Name of Mary Church – for a year and a half before we came here. Nothing personal against the other people whose lives led them to that same apartment building, but for us personally, the experience was like being under siege all the time. I like mountains. And rivers. We’re really just here for the money, my wife and I. So we can go visit mountains and rivers. This is where our jobs are, and this is my son’s hometown. If we left, it sure wouldn’t be because of anybody who’s moving in.

And yes, every town on Long Island is a property tax rabbit hole and everything costs way too much, but the opportunities exist here to do pretty much anything for a living (except maybe forestry or sheparding) and live a decent middle-class life. We have a lot invested in getting up and going to work in the morning, and we get a pretty good return on that investment. Not great, but pretty good. All things considered, we have very, very little to complain about compared to most of the people on Earth.

And this past weekend, the people who monitor the Valley Stream News Facebook – the first ones to tell you the helicopters are flying over the mall and all hell is breaking loose again – had a get-together at our very neat and clean Hendrickson Park, where people came on down and met their neighbors for a pot-luck meal and some pleasant company on a Saturday afternoon, all happy to be part of the scene in New York State’s best town. I’ll let the picture below stand for itself . Not pictured is John Duffy or his family, as we were upstate in Copake Falls that day (ironically) but otherwise we’d have be there, and I appreciate every effort that people make to make this a better place, knowing full-well that it will never be 1955 ever again, and the whole world is crowded except for Onchiota, NY.

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Photo credit and props to Chrissy O’ Toole, who brought all these Valley Streamers together.

The reality of Valley Stream, Long Island in 2018, is simply not the reality my parents bought into in 1955. With nothing but $400,000 houses, there’s really no place for people get started here. And many of the people who are trying to get started here anyway are from other places in the world, many of them having done their time in those same neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn that produced the population of post-war Long Island. And one could take it as a compliment that they think so much of Valley Stream that this is where they want to live and raise their kids. Or one could bemoan the fact that one’s hometown is not what it was. But really, nothing is, so what sense does that make? And for the second and third generations of Valley Streamers like myself, why would you begrudge people who are trying to do for their kids what your parents did for you, no matter where those people came from?

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“WAIT.”

We’re waiting at the light to cross Sunrise Highway right now, and there’s always the chance we might get killed. It’s a busy, angry, stressed-out six-lane highway in a town full of busy, angry, stressed out drivers on roads choked with way too many cars, hence there are generally two or three fatalities a year on Sunrise Highway just in Nassau County alone. The State DOT just finished a big expensive reconstruction that, I have to admit, made me feel better about my chances of not getting killed. Included in that reconstruction was a series of crosswalks where you press the button and a very commanding computer voice tells you very matter-of-factly to “WAIT.” The first time Mookie heard this, he looked back at me to figure out how the hell I did that with my voice. And, of course, he waited, because he’s a good dog. And I laughed and I laughed.

Now we’re walking up Valley Stream’s main drag. The question of  “what can we do to make people shop on Rockaway Avenue?” has been bandied about since Green Acres was built. (Here’s an idea: Don’t build Green Acres). Rockaway Avenue has been slightly dysfunctional for most of my life, but like me, it gets by. There used to be a movie theatre, The Rio, which was actually an old vaudeville playhouse. I saw the Grateful Dead Movie there at least five times, and saw the Stray Cats perform on the 4th of July, probably 35 years ago. In many towns east and north of us in Nassau County and out into Suffolk County, people made the investment to save their local one-screen movie houses and turn them into performing arts spaces. Subsequently, if you look around, there are interesting places to see plays and live music and vintage films all over Long Island and Valley Stream isn’t one of them. Oops.

New York 209We do have Ancona, which is famous for their true New York pizza, calzones and heroes, and where you are officially in with the Valley Stream in-crowd if George knows you by name. We have Itgen’s, famous for their homemade ice cream, and recently sold with the promise that it will continue. We have Mitchell’s, a nice little restaurant, though I prefer the Valbrook Diner up on Merrick Road, and an Italian Restaurant called Mia’s that’s been on my list of places to try a lot longer than Meli Melo. We used to have Morris’ Variety, which for years was the place to get everything from a screw to a fake Christmas tree. It was taken over a few years back by Raindew. Not quite as quirky as Morris’, but it serves the same purpose. They got me hooked on Yankee Candles. A lot of businesses have disappeared over the years, but there are a surprising number of survivors.

Among the Rockaway Avenue old-timers are the T & F Pork Store, DePalma Florist, Larry’s Bar, Woods Locksmith, Ciccarelli the Tailor (make-a you a nice suit), Brancard’s Deli, Valley Home Care and Surgical Supplies, Valley Stream Pharmacy, Chicken Gyro Delicious and the stalwart Sal and Vin’s Barbershop, established in 1952. Tell Michael you know me.

Rockaway Avenue is also the go-to place if you like Latin American and South American cuisine. The Chicken Coop does Colombian chicken. There’s a couple of Spanish delis plus the Juanito Bakery and Café, and my favorite, the San Antonio Bakery, that will make you a hot dog they call a “compleato” – with avocado and a bun they made at 6am – that’ll knock you on your ass. If you want to go Mediterranean, there’s Sam’s Halal Steak and Grill where a Not-Halal Steak and Grill called P.J Harper’s used to be, and the Nightcap Café used to be before that. Haven’t tried it but I hear good things.

And yet, with this all going for it, Rockaway Avenue looks kind of shabby compared to other main drags on the Island. Beyond the stores I mentioned are your usual nail and hair salons, dollar stores, second-hand merchandise stores, empty storefronts and (of course) a T-Mobile. Taken as a whole, living organism, it doesn’t seem cohesive. It has a “patched together” quality about it. Many of the surrounding downtowns have invested more in visual appeal, fancy sidewalks and facades and uniform signage and the like. It’s also a heavily trafficked street so it’s somewhat noisy and dirty in general. The Village recently reclaimed an old building across from Ancona and renovated it into the Village Court in an effort to bring in more pedestrian traffic around Rockaway businesses and restaurants, so it’s not like they’re not trying.

But here’s the thing: Ultimately, how important is aesthetics if I can get a haircut, a new welcome mat, a compleato or a meatball parm hero and even get my wife’s shoes fixed by an old-timey shoe repair guy? How badly do I need bricked sidewalks and signs that all in the same typeface? I’d like the stores and the open space up the block from me to be less of a toxic wasteland, but to what end? So it suits my fussy sensibilities?

Sometimes you just have to get over it. Money Magazine thinks we’re “neat and clean”, and I’ll tell you what: As we’re walking through residential neighborhoods in Valley Stream that are now almost 100 years old, 95% of the front yards that we pass are pretty as a picture. The houses themselves, if not renovated, are well-maintained. People are house proud here, and it shows. This is all we have. We take care of it. We make lemonade.

But sometimes you have every right to be pissed. The surface of the roads, a juristictional spider web of responsibility divided among the Village, the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County, are for the most part terrible. While the parks are nice enough, too many public spaces are tired eyesores.  The LIRR and the Utility Companies bear a lot of responsibility for that. Above our heads is a jungle of wires that may or may not stay up there if there’s a thunderstorm this afternoon, or a hurricane. The train trestles are rusting away.

Roads and public spaces are among the basic services that we pay property taxes for, and from what I see, they are not given priority. Somebody decided it was more important to give tax breaks to Green Acres Mall.

That’s right. Screw your roads. This is Long Island. We shop. Commerce is King here. If there are enough band-aids and rolls of duct tape holding together the infrastructure to get you to the next strip mall and back, then what the hell are you complaining about? Your neighbors in Valley Stream plant pretty flowers, and they smile at your dog. It’s the Best Place To Live in New York State. Just keep buying shit and we’ll all be fine.

Todd Pratt was a backup catcher for the New York Mets in the late 90’s / early 2000’s, when Hall of Famer Mike Piazza was the starting catcher. He was a good guy to have on your team. At this time, Shea Stadium, which was a perfectly wonderful place to go watch a baseball game, was already facing its demise. The plan, ultimately implemented in 2006, was to knock old Shea down – deemed a poorly designed relic of another time with ever-more disgusting bathrooms and concessions and 30 years of gum embedded in the concrete – and replace it with a “retro” stadium with all sorts of cool angles and seats closer and better angled towards the field, not to mention lots more expensive places to eat and cushy seats for the one-percenters.

Back in the 90’s, when the Mets flew into LaGuardia Airport after a road trip and Shea Stadium came into view from the plane, Todd Pratt would (I’ve read) stand up and make this announcement:

“Well, there it is boys. It’s kind of a dump. But it’s OUR dump.”

I get it. I never have really taken to Citi Field.

David Sabatino would get it, too, but unlike me, he wouldn’t accept it as the truth of his hometown. To David’s way of thinking, it would be blasphemous to call Valley Stream a dump, even to convey a sense of familiarity, or in my case, resignation. David, who loves Valley Stream like Mookie loves me, is the co-owner of Sip This, a coffee shop and cool hangout place that’s been on Rockaway, right across from where the movie theatre isn’t, for seven years. (It was named after Slipped Disc, the iconic hipster record store that once occupied the space. Get it? Slipped Disc? Sip This? Clever, huh? ). David also has a degree in urban planning ( I’m pretty sure) and he is a natural-born organizer. But more importantly, David is a good guy, and an optimist. And Valley Stream is lucky to have a guy like him around. So now he works for the Village as well, and very well may be the mayor someday whether he likes it or not.

He’s probably a good twenty-five years younger than me, but I didn’t have his level of energy and hope for the future when I was five, never mind thirty. It was Mookie, really who introduced me to David. In 2010, when Mookie was just a gleam in his father’s eye, I was researching dog parks to take the puppy I was getting in 2011. I came across a website for an organization called “Envision Valley Stream”, the brainchild of my friend Mr. Sabatino, which was, among other things, petitioning the Village of Valley Stream government to build and maintain a dog park.

2153014_0FsLTOdeM_uB4AlTewCQqnyVpCtWx4OsQz9Zi4UyOwkWe have a neat and clean and picturesque village park called Hendrickson Park a mile and half due north of Duffy’s Creek, which gets it fresh water and anti-freeze runoff from Mill Pond – which we’ll pass on the way back – and from Hendrickson Lake via pipes that go under Merrick Road and through the Village Green. Hendrickson Lake features a fine walking and biking path that leads up to Valley Stream State Park, and there’s an equally fine community pool complex in the park that we pay lots of money to swim in every summer. But no dogs are allowed on the path, and they can only swim in the kiddie pool on the day after Labor Day because everybody at Village Hall likes Mike Powers, who first had the idea. And how could you not?

So back in 2010, David starts planning a dog park, and I start going to his Envision Valley Stream meetings, and we strike up a friendship and all of a sudden I’m involved in the community. I start getting to know Mayor Fare (yeah, I know. It’s like it’s made up) and Deputy Mayor and Renaissance Man Vinny Grasso and other people who I liked right away because I recognized them instantly as real Valley Stream as an adjective (smart; personable; outspoken; funny; genuine).

The road to building the dog park, now located in the Village Green next to the Village Hall and the Library, had a couple of rough patches along the way. I got discouraged and frustrated, but other people who had taken David’s idea and run with it, including the aforementioned Mr. Powers, did not, because they’re better people than I am. Eventually you would have to say it was a success. So much so that the Town of Hempstead, Nassau County and other village municipalities started building more dog parks, so our dog park doesn’t get quite the crowd that it used to. Still, over the years, it’s been a great place to kill a half hour and shoot the breeze while Mookie watches dogs that are way too fast for him to keep up with. (It’s really the people park with dogs in it for Mookie).

David Sabatino, force of nature that he is, moved on to other things, including starting a family and buying a house in Westwood. Right now he’s planning a Community Garden and – get this – a “Winter Festival” centered around the ice hockey rink next to the train station. And getting involved with Sabatino’s vision gets you involved with all sorts of other people, which is indirectly how I wound up agreeing to do a presentation about the history of Valley Stream through the history of my parents for the local Historical Society. I’ll be at the Community Center on Wednesday September 12th of this year (2018). Unless of course they read this post and tell me to stuff it.

Anyway, there’s one more important thing I have to tell you about Sabatino. His greatest civic accomplishment by far has been the establishment of the annual Valley Stream Community Fest on the fourth Saturday of September. For one day, Rockaway Avenue becomes a laid back pedestrian street fair, Hundreds of people turn out to stroll up and down the avenue. Every sports, civic, religious and cultural organization in town is represented, seated at folding tables with brochures and big smiles, ready to tell you all about what they do. The businesses on Rockaway get to promote themselves. Plus there’s lots of arts and crafts and junk food for sale, rides for the kids, demonstrations, people dancing around in brightly colored clothing, an antique car show and enough ethnic and religious diversity to make your average Trumpanzees want to crawl back into their caves, or possibly realize what assholes they’ve been all this time. But I doubt it.

IMG_E1780And don’t think that Mookie doesn’t get in on all this. For three of the last four years, he’s worked a three-hour shift at the “Doggie Kissing Booth”, raising money to support the Friends of Valley Stream Dogs. On Fest Day, he’s in Mookie Heaven, wagging people over to him as they walk by (“Ohhhhh!!! Look how cute!!!) and convincing them to hand Mike a dollar so they can lean down and get a big, sloppy wet dog smooch. Once Mookie is sufficiently overwhelmed, Bella the Chocolate Lab takes over, and that’s usually when we grab a compleato from San Antonio and head on home to the backyard. The creek is too icky for Mookie to swim in, so he has a kiddie pool to jump in to cool down after his walk. I can offer you a cold Dr. Pepper.

We’ll head home along South Franklin Avenue. We’ll pass the post office, the Burrito Monster (not a fan) and the Railroad Inn next to the train station, a bar now owned by a guy I went to kindergarten with, which is next to another bar called Buckley’s that’s been an old man’s bar since before the owner of the Railroad Inn and I were in kindergarten.  The Dog Park and the Village Green are over on the other side of the tracks, but we’ve put about four and half miles on the Fitbit already, and we’re a half mile from home, and Mookie and I ain’t so young anymore, so the Dog Park will have to wait for later. We’ll pass Papandrew Jewelers, where the owner, who’s the son of the original owner, once took out an armed robber. We’ll cross Sunrise (“WAIT.”) and be glad we don’t need anything from Staples today.

We could cut across Mill Pond Park, which still has some nice, big trees, but instead we’ll walk through the almost 100-year old original Gibson neighborhood anchored by Roosevelt Avenue, because Mookie has a lot of friends down that way. Passing by the Sunoco with the sign that says :”COOFFEE 99 CENTS!” (you can also get free air for your tires if you press the “botton”) we’ll make the turn at the Greek Pie Factory (they’re really tasty) and the hair salon with the sign lit up in 100-point type (“HAIR SALON!”), both on the ground floor of a very old two-story building that someone would like to knock down to build another high-rise apartment, and probably will.

We could go up to Cochran Place, which would lead us back to Gibson Station, but we’re going to cut west back towards Jedwood Place. Once on a summer Sunday afternoon we saw a group of people in a tiny back yard on Cochran who had a dance floor set up where they were all watching one couple dancing a tango. My, I was glad I saw that. This same family has some sort of parrots that used to squawk at my son and I from the windows when we rode on our bikes to the summer camp he loved going to at Barrett Park. There’s another guy along Ridge who walks his parrot on his shoulder, which makes Mookie think to himself, “My, I’m glad I saw that.”

We could walk straight down Roosevelt to Fairfield where some old guys might be leaning on a chain link fence shooting the breeze, and Mookie will growl at the dog behind that fence because they’re supposed to be his old guys. A little further on he might see his friend the 99-year old WWII veteran sitting on his porch, and he’ll stop and do his waggy waggy routine until the his old friend invites him up on the porch for a face rub.

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At the corner of Jedwood and Mill, The Happiest Guy in The World came from far away to tend this garden, and I’m glad he’s here.

Crossing Mill, we might see the happiest guy in the world, one of my new neighbors from somewhere far away who always greets us warmly, who is out almost every evening when the sun is shining, happily tidying up the gardens around his little house at the corner of Mill and Jedwood, where the traffic is hideous and where I wouldn’t live if you gave me $400,000 but he seems to love it. It just goes to show you. Everything is relative. And his relatives seem to enjoy it, too.

We’ll arrive home in Mookie’s backyard, and he’ll cool down in his pool. But before you go, I’ll leave you with a scene I saw on that neglected path that you see directly across the creek. Mookie and I were walking along that path one morning when we came upon a young Filipino couple getting their three little kids out of the house for a while. Two of the kids were on bikes and the youngest was walking. The kids on the bikes stopped riding, as they were very excited to meet Mookie, and he them. The father and the mother caught up to them and the father asked me about his breed and I told him and he said, “he’s a big boy.” And I said, “he sure is!” and Mookie wagged his tail.

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I was thinking to myself that these people are my parents in 1958, with three little kids who need to get out of the house and a nice path along a creek (somewhat nicer then) to go for a walk right near their house.

Livin’ the Dream in Valley Stream.

And just as I was thinking this, I saw the smallest kid, who was on foot, catching up to the others and zooming in on Mookie. Then I noticed his t-shirt. It said, “YOU CAN’T STOP THIS!”

And I thought to myself: Why would I want to? Why would anyone?

Kid, let me tell you something about Valley Stream, since you’ll be growing up here just like I did. I’ve been around here a long time, and to tell you the truth I’m at the point where other places, with bigger trees and fewer cars, are calling to me. (I suppose you’ve never heard of Zillow, kid, but don’t worry about it).

For the foreseeable future, though, I suppose Mookie and I will be part of the scenery as you grow up here. And the fact is, we could both do a lot worse. I don’t know about the Best Place to Live in New York State, but your parents still picked a good place for you to live, just like my parents did. Remember that.

And kid, if and when Mookie and I do move on, please do us both a favor and take care of what’s left of the natural world around here. It’s probably going to get more and more crowded and noisy, but help out the birds any way you can. And keep your antenna up, ’cause you never know what kind of shit your local politicians will pull, or what they will neglect. Better yet, get to know them, and let them know what you think.

And this is important, kid. Don’t let anyone ever, ever make you believe that you don’t belong here. That’s up to you to decide. Until then, you belong here as much as I do.

And one more thing:

Valley Stream? The Town of Hempstead? Nassau County? Long Island? New York? America? The Planet Earth?

People throw their garbage in the street here, but people also organize street fairs. People build humongous apartment buildings here, but they also build dog parks, and maybe they’ll fix this path. People drive like psychopaths here, but they light up at red lights when they see a big happy dog smiling at them from the sidewalk. People who can get away with it steal money here to build more stores to steal more money, but the teacher or principal that you remember forever at Forest Ave. School or South High will be worth every penny your parents pay in school taxes. People make a mess of things here, and people keep it from becoming a complete mess.

It’s kind of a dump, kid. But it’s our dump.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking a Walk: An Abridged 10,000-Year History of South Valley Stream

 

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There have been Duffy’s on Duffy’s Creek since March 9, 1955. There have been people on Duffy’s Creek since about 4600 B.C. So the existence of people has a long and colorful history here, though the existence of too damn many people is a relatively recent phenomenon, out of which I was born in 1963, the youngest of five children, an unwitting part of the problem.

On summer nights, Trisha and I sit out in the backyard, and we talk some, while alternately staring at our little light-up magic rectangles and staring through the flowers towards the sunset over the creek. I like to imagine a Rockaway Indian couple sitting right in this spot in summer twilight a thousand years ago, without the stupid iphones and kindles, maybe listening to the “crawwwk!” of night herons, or watching swallows and bats circling the orange sky, or just watching the flow of the creek, the same tide and the same current, and maybe some of the same water molecules as we look at today, but maybe without so much spam in them.

But I don’t have to imagine being a little kid a hundred years ago, before the sprawl, walking into a deep, majestic forest at the end of Westwood Road in Woodmere, walking less than three miles to emerge from that forest into a farm field that overlooked this creek. I don’t have to imagine it at all because about ten years ago I discovered a book titled The Lord’s Woods: The Passing of an American Woodland written in 1971 by a noted birder and naturalist named Robert Arbib. And Mr. Arbib told me all about it; what this place was like for thousands of years before cape cods and split levels ate it alive. And we’ve become friends, though he died twenty years ago, because I love learning about the history of places, and I’ve spent a whole lot of time hanging around this one. And so did he. I like him and I think he would’ve liked me. md10207462402

A little disclaimer before I go on: I know a lot of people who are passionate about digging up the history of Valley Stream and the surrounding area, and some of them will read this post and want to point out possible discrepancies. (Gleefully). Please just relax. This is but a jumble of the stuff I know from reading Mr. Arbib’s book and a whole lot of other stuff, including stuff from the Hewlett-Woodmere Library website and the Valley Stream Historical Society Facebook page , called “Valley Stream of Yesteryear.” (You’re all wonderful people, and thank you for uncredited pictures, but you didn’t credit them either). I also know some history from my mother, who wrote the Valley Stream Historical Society newsletter for ten years or so, and my father-in-law, Jack McCloskey, who visited this neighborhood in the 1930’s for watercress and garden lime. But this is definitely not meant to be the definitive history of anything. (And by the way, it would be much easier to refer to Robert Arbib as “Bob” from here on in. “Mr. Arbib” sounds like I’m trying to be the New York Times, and I happen to know that his friends called him Bob. Anyway). What I am trying to do here is to put words and context to the pictures that I can I see in my mind sometimes when Mookie and I go walking.

Everybody knows us, Mookie and me. We’re local characters, and we’re proud of that. One sunny day in the middle of last winter, a woman called out to me from a car on Wood Lane as Mookie was reading his pee mail. She said, “you two really get around, don’t you! I see you everywhere!” I said, “Yes, yes we do.” And Mookie looked up and wagged his tail.

I knew at that moment that I had achieved my ultimate purpose in life: Being a local character. I’m the slightly crazy looking thin man with the very large happy yellow lab who you see walking around South Valley Stream all the time. But Mookie, of course, is superior to me in so many ways, particularly in his full-minded commitment to The Here And The Now. He’s living in the present when we’re out walking because he’s a dog, and that’s what dogs do, which is why they’re so much better than us. I try to stay in The Here And The Now, but I’m just not Mookie and I never will be. Often I’m living in the future as we’re walking, figuring out what things I can turn into things I’ve already done in the hours and the days ahead. But sometimes I’m living in the past, imagining what this place was like before the cars and the trucks and the poles and the lights and the wires and the fences and the signs and the asphalt and the whole rest of it. And it makes me wistful for a place I never knew, even though I’m walking through the middle of where it was; a place that, had it not been altered forever in the decades before I was born, actually would have made me as I know me impossible.

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Robert Arbib

Bob’s story starts in 1920, as a nine year old boy exploring the woods that actually stretched from Lawrence to South Valley Stream, which he learned were called The Lord’s Woods after the very rich, successful lawyer who had owned the land at one time. (There’s a Lord Avenue way down in Lawrence in the area behind Rock Hall, where nobody ever goes unless you’ve got business there or you’re lost. It’s quite a beautiful area). The woods that Bob and his friend begin to explore stretched from about three miles southwest of here just about to my backyard. The entire Lord Estate stretched back through Cedarhurst and Lawrence all the way to Far Rockaway. My son is twelve and we can’t yet in good conscience let him cross the four lane road (Mill Road) that separates us from the rest of the world. Once upon a time, Mill Road was where the woods thinned out and the farms started. Bob and his friend walked through the woods, teeming with hundreds of different bird species and happy little animals. They discovered cool stuff like an Indian marker tree that was bent on purpose to indicate a trail, and a rope swing along a brook in the middle of nowhere. They crossed streams and marshland and followed along a dirt road until the realized they were following a gigantic water pipe, half-buried in the ground. The pipe led them to the “waterworks”, the Long Island Water Property, where the last little postage stamp of woods remain to this day.

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A picture I took of the current “waterworks” building at the end of Starfire Court, before that camera picked me up and people started chasing me. Not really.
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The waterworks that Bob found in the middle of The Lords’ Woods in the 1920’s.

They realized that the Water Company actually owned all the land that they were walking on. and that the land was kept undeveloped because they needed to pump water from under it. (One of the main reasons they ultimately sold it off to development and bulldozed it was that the technology was developed to dig deeper wells, thereby needing less land to protect the aquifers). But people had been trespassing on and enjoying these woods forever, and Bob and his friend soon found like-minded young nerdy fellows who liked identifying birds.

I like identifying birds. When Trisha and I first took over at Duffy’s Creek, we started keeping track of how many different bird species we could attract, including the waterfowl, who just hung around with us because we have a creek. Over the course of three or four years of keeping neat little notebooks (before we became parents and chaos ensued), I counted somewhere around 105 different species. Many of them just showed up once or twice, inexplicably, like a Brown Thrasher or a Tri-Colored Heron. But in The Lord’s Woods, apparently all these birds were as common as pigeons. And this is how Bob became a famous orthinologist, and how I helped get Andrew Cuomo to promise South Valley Stream $3 million dollars to help rehabilitate the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek, money which he may or may not be still holding on to, because they haven’t spent it yet. I suppose because he’s not up for re-election. But that’s a story for another post.

In the first half of The Lord’s Woods, Bob tells the story of his youth through his seasons exploring own local primitive wilderness. As a guy who likes birds and plants and stuff, I just ate it up. There’s also a particularly gut-wrenching storyline about showing his first girlfriend all the secrets of The Lord’s Woods, then losing her to a car accident several years later when she was away at college, which was absolutely heart-breaking to read. Nonetheless, It’s all beautifully written, and topped off by a really cool map (pictured below) that helped me follow exactly where he was (and what is there now) as he describes his discoveries. I live along what is called Mott’s Creek or Foster’s Brook on the map. When I was growing up, my father told me it was called Watt’s Creek. On USGS maps (United States Geological Survey) it’s called “Valley Stream”. About fifteen years ago, when I had some time on my hands, I wrote to the USGS and tried to get it changed to Duffy’s Creek. The nice man from the USGS patiently explained to me that: 1) The don’t use apostrophes, which was a total buzzkill, and 2) I would have to die.  I know that Foster, Mott and Watt were also local characters who just started calling the creek by their own names, so until I die and someone does the paperwork, that’s my plan.

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In the middle of the book, as Bob is still grieving for his lost love, first the Hurricane of 1938 and then a giant fire decimate the woods. (I’ve seen more than once what a big hurricane can do to big trees). And the omens begin to rise around this same time: Giant electrical transmission towers go up, and surveyor marks plot out Peninsula Boulevard (which you can see on Bob’s map cuts right through the heart of what he called The Big Woods).

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Looking north on Peninsula Boulevard.

A wilderness would eventually recover over time from a natural disaster, but it didn’t stand a chance against the the post-WWII boom, and it is this point in the story where the book rises from beautiful to powerful and unforgettable. In the chapter entitled “Boom”, Bob begins:

“It was not fire that destroyed the Lord’s Woods. Fire and storm, blizzard and drought, even hurricane and flood were all natural events in the woods’ long history, often experienced and somehow survived, their wounds slowly self-healing and finally obliterated in forgiving beauty. Before the final act could be staged and the curtain rung down on the last of the drama that had been unfolding here for thousands of years, there had to appear on stage the villian of the piece – modern man – and there had to be a motive. It was not fire or storm that came to destroy our woods. It was greed and duplicity, avarice and ignorance and apathy.”

The “Boom” chapter, and the following chapter, called “The Threat” take you through a truly American story: How people saw what was happening to the woods and tried to stop it, and other people laughed and said “Fuck you. We’re doing it anyway.” As more and more of the woods were being bulldozed for development, people began to realize that “what remained was the only remnant of wet woodland left” in Southwest Nassau County, “the only place where one cold lose himself from the frenetic world and be an Indian brave or a Thoreau, a Daniel Boone or a John James Audubon, or just oneself, a child learning about the world around him.” 

Here’s the short version: In 1955, the year my parents bought a house on a creek in a five-year old development of cape cods, the Lord’s Woods had been reduced to a box bordered approximately by, from what I can tell, Gibson Boulevard, Peninsula Boulevard, Woodmere Middle School, Hungry Harbor Road, Rosedale Road and Duffy’s Creek. The entire neighborhood of North Woodmere came after West Sunbury, so the ancient woods probably met the Hoeffner Farm all the way down Rosedale Road and went along Doxy Brook and blended into marshland as it got closer to Jamaica Bay. And in the other direction, I know for sure that there was a scout camp on the land where Peninsula Shopping Center sits now. You would need a lot of trees for a proper scout camp, so that was likely part of the woods as well. The neighborhood of North Woodmere on the opposite side of Rosedale Road from ours has bigger trees, because it was a woods and this was a farm. (I figured this one out all on my own).

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At the corner of Mill Road and Peninsula Boulevard, where a scout camp in the woods was up until the 1950’s.

The community got wind of a deal between the water company and a developer to buy up and bulldoze what was left of the Lord’s Woods. Bob tells of a woman named Helen Bergh and a man named Ben Berliner who were the leading forces in trying to save the woods, working with the Audubon Society to develop ways that the area could be used as a sanctuary and interpretive nature center.  As the last acres of what was by that time called the Woodmere Woods were being eaten up, Helen Bergh (what a great name) led the Woodmere Woods Conservation Committee. They tried everything. New York didn’t want it for a state park. Nassau County didn’t want it. Officials from the Town of Hempstead suggested they would consider a park if Bergh, Berliner and their committee could show a public consensus for saving the last virgin woodlands in Southwestern Nassau County. But as Bob points out, “to prove that all people, everywhere wanted an esoteric amenity like a public wildlife preserve in 1956 was no easy task.” Some people wanted a park with lots of ballfields and tennis courts and swimming pools, which they eventually did get in North Woodmere Park. Other people, newer arrivals to the area, “would let the developers proceed; homes and gardens were more desirable neighbors than thickets of poison ivy and rat-infested woodlands where rapists can hide.” There wasn’t much you could do to convince people who had such disregard for the concept of open space that it would be in their interest to have a large undeveloped area around them. They’d no doubt never go in it anyway. Mosquitoes. Rapists. Very unsafe. Best to stay in the air conditioning.

By 1957, Helen Bergh had joined forces with a neighbor and friend who had also grown up enjoying the woods. His name was Edward S. Bentley. Together, they wrote a bill to present to the New York State legislature giving the Town of Hempstead authority to create a park district out of the Woodmere Woods. Before they could find sponsorship for the bill, the Water Company sold the land. Bob describes a race between the bulldozers, chain saws and graders, moving “like an invading army into the Lords’ Woods. One by one, the century-old oaks, maples, tulips, hickories, ashes and sweet gums crashed to the frozen ground.” 

Sudddenly, as the woods came crashing down, people started paying attention to the destruction of the woods. Newsday was an up and coming newspaper at that time, according to Bob, and they took up the cause, but “while the editorial pages endorsed the principles of conservation and preservation, the business section, real estate section and its general news rang with announcement after proud announcement of the latest shopping center, housing development, industrial park, power station, highway expansion, population growth, property values and prosperity…No one was talking about the intangible cost of smog and summer heat, and the deprivation of natural beauty and an oasis of solitude and silence. Quality of life was of little concern to most people in 1957.” I’m sure if my parents knew about this story, and I’m sure they did, they were too busy to even think about joining a fight to save some woods.

Needless to say, the park proposal was shot down. Bob points out several bad guys in the tale, including lawyers and elected officials who were working both sides of the fence, pretending to help Mrs. Bergh’s cause for the public support it would bring them and working with the developers to destroy the woods at the same time. By the end of 1958, five years before I was born, the Lord’s Woods were completely gone. There is a little postage stamp of woodland around the waterworks, and some land that creeps up behind backyards up Doxy Brook to the reservoir on Hungry Harbor Road. When I was a kid, we’d sneak into those woods sometimes. My older brother and his friends used to catch turtles, bring them back to the house, paint their initials on the shells and set them free again. Today, most of it has barbed wire around it. And apparently, If I see something, I should say something. I assume it would be about what I saw, but I can only see though the fence, and there’s not much to see.

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What’s left of Doxy Brook at Rosedale Road
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Through the fence into the woods

 

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A picture of a path through the woods that Mookie and I are not allowed on, and neither are you, taken through the fence on Brookfield / Rosedale Road. If I see you there, I have to say something.

When I was younger than my son is now, I would go off in the summertime on my bike searching for rabbits in the parkland built behind the backyards in the Green Acres neighborhood, which is across Duffy’s Creek from our own neighborhood, which was called West Sunbury when Mr. William Gibson’s company built it in 1950. When I was a little older, I would take the aluminum rowboat from our backyard and row it down to Rosedale Road, pretending I was an Indian paddling along the creek. You could “park” the boat and climb the bulkhead into Brook Road Park in Green Acres. About twenty years ago, maybe more, they changed the name of the neighborhood to Mill Brook, because the residents did not want to be associated with the gargantuan shopping mall that sits right next to it (The same developer, Channan Corporation, built the houses and the shopping mall on land that once once divided between the Hoeffner Farm and Curtis Field, a famous airfield in the 1920’s that was visited by Ameliah Earheart and Charles Lindbergh. There’s a plaque in the middle of the Home Depot parking lot you could go look at if you don’t believe me). 10414459_10152187517227983_633736653996581073_nThe shopping mall is still called Green Acres, and it’s about thirty times the size it was when I was a kid. I may be exaggerating there a little bit. All I can tell you is that there aren’t any kids looking for rabbits or pretending to be Indians around here anymore. Lately they’ve been looking for Pokemon.

hub00031Mr Gibson built our house. Thirty years before, he bought up a wooded area north of the farms and south of Sunrise Highway (which apparently was a hunting ground up until that time, though I don’t know who was hunting what) and built a planned neighborhood south of Sunrise Highway and north of the Lord’s Woods. Some of the houses were brick capes, but most of the houses were called “Gibson Colonials”. I’ve been in lots of Gibson Colonials12510280_10153935905123060_3823137400778803684_n, and they’re great houses. Before the 1920’s were over, 12345517_10200991102777741_2972661268509285498_nGibson started building bigger, pointy colonials on Munroe Boulevard and the surrounding streets. They’re great houses, too. In the middle of it all, he built his own Long Island Railroad Station in 1929.

300px-Gibson_LIRR_StationAfter World War II, Gibson bought up some more farmland and built hundreds of cookie-cutter capes and rickety ranches. Not as big as the colonials, but darn comfy, and with slightly less claustrophobic backyards. My parents bought a cape  from an original owner who left after five years (for a bigger house). Gibson cranked out South Valley Stream in the course of thirty years. Our house was built in 1950 on what was the a small patch of woods at the edge of potato fields belonging to Reising Farm, which was divided between the Gibson development called “West Sunbury”, Harbor Road Elementary School (later renamed Robert W. Carbonaro School) and Valley Stream South High School.

Three houses still exist on Hungry Harbor Road right around the corner from here that predate Mr. Gibson’s West Sunbury neighborhood and the North Woodmere neighborhood that begins just south of it. (The name Hungry Harbor goes back to the 17th Century, and referred to squatters who lived on the land). One of the houses (the red one below) is condemned, but there may or may not be a guy still living in it. And don’t think I don’t now his name, because I do, because you learn things when you hang around a place for 53 years. I’m just not telling you about him because I feel sorry for him. You can see “the farmhouse” from our front yard. Close enough that you could holler across the potato field from the back step and tell Pa supper was ready if he were standing in our backyard. It must have been beautiful. There was actually a buffer of woods between the field and the creek, which is tidal and would probably eat your potatoes if you planted them too close. You could probably take a quick swim in the creek and not smell like the back of a garbage truck when you came out.

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This was the original Reising farmhouse, across Hungry Harbor Road from the 1920 house. I can’t find the date it was built, but I imagine it starts with an 18. Notice that the house has been boarded up but there’s an air conditioner in the window. There’s somebody in there, and he’s a Mets fan.
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The Reising Farmhouse, built in 1920, where Jack McCloskey’s father bought lime for his nursery in the 1930’s.

My late father-in-law, the great Jack McCloskey, was a nursery man. His father started McCloskey’s Florist and Nursery in Rego Park Queens in the 1920’s. When Jack visited our house for the first time, I thought he would enjoy knowing that you could see the  farmhouse from our front yard. The farmhouse has a large outbuilding. Not really a barn but more like a  series of attached garages. Thanks to Jack McCloskey, I now know that in the 1930’s, he would ride out to Valley Stream with his parents, where his Dad would buy the garden lime the Reisings sold wholesale out of that building and he would pick watercress along the creek with his mom. We were standing in my driveway when he told me what he remembered. We would have been in the trees at the end of the potato field.

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A very cool aerial map, courtesy of my friends at The VS Historical Society.

At the end of the chapter of The Lord’s Woods when Bob recounts how the last of the woods were lost, he interrupts the narrative and takes you back all the way to the glaciers to drive home the point of what was lost when those chain saws and bulldozers attacked the Lord’s Woods. He includes the ancient history of the place to illustrate just how disgusting the systematic destruction of this land for tract housing really was, how parts of the area surrounding me were literally untouched from before the birth of Christ until just after the arrival of Francis and Joan Duffy.  He describes the arrival of the Rockaway Indians, a great bunch of people with a really cool name who showed up here around 1000 b.c. “For centuries untold, these people lived on these lands and waters making no destructive impact on the environment…They belonged to the woods and were as much a part of it as the turkey, the bear and the wolf.” 

Of course, once the English Settlers showed up in the 1600’s and created Ye Olde Town of Hempstead, the jig was up for the Rockaway Indians. Within about two hundred years, in 1818, the last of the Rockaways, an old man named Culluloo Telewana, died in his little house in Woodmere. 70 years later, a local man named Abraham Hewlett, who “was enthralled with his stories as a boy” erected a monument to Cullulo Telewana. As Bob points out in The Lord’s Woods, “It is the only memorial to a 7,000 year history to be found anywhere.” And here it is:jedziegler6a-1

And so Mookie and I go for a walk a hundred years ago, in 1916, before Gibson, before Curtiss Airfield. It’s very, very quiet here. We start at the creek and walk through a small patch of woods until we’re walking along farm fields towards Mill Road. We cross the dirt road and stroll beside the mill on Watt’s Pond. Mookie jumps in for a quick swim while I watch the ducks fly off. We walk back along the dirt road, maybe seeing people out working in the fields. The land is completely flat, so you can see the farmhouse all the way from the pond. Mill Road disappears into the woods. We walk through a cathedral of trees along an old Indian path. Maybe it’s the end of October, and the leaves are on fire as they rain softly from the giant trees, and the autumn sunshine streams down, bringing the whole scene into sharp focus and preposterous color, like an old Kodachrome print. We walk about as far as Peninsula Boulevard then we turn around and head back to the 21st Century, our footsteps and birds singing around us the only sounds we hear. Yes, folks, there could have been a beautiful, majestic nature preserve right in my backyard, an ancient woodland preserved for the benefit of my son, his son, his grandson and all our dogs. But as Bob Arbib writes at the end of the final chapter of The Lord’s Woods, “greed and apathy, deceit and arrogance, ignorance and blindness to future needs had finally done their dirty work.”  

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Mill Pond at the turn of the 20th Century.
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A lithograph from 1878 of Mill Pond by an artist named Charles Henry Miller.

One of my favorite passages from The Lord’s Woods appears on page 175, when Bob is explicitly expressing his opinion of  my neighborhood, the place my parents fell in love with, the place my son loves. This is how he saw it:

North of the woods along the Old Grey Road (Rosedale Road was its official name) the farms were disappearing fast…Grids of roads were slashed across them and the houses went up blocks at a time, more densly crowded, more monotonously uniform than anywhere around…I looked upon them as rural, ready-made slums, quickly and badly thrown together…they were sold and occupied as fast as they were built. This was a sorry wasteland, now, with no single inhabitant of any of those tacky boxes who could remember what had once been here: The corn, the rows of lettuce, the potatoes, the bluestem grass. No one could remember a horse and buggy shooting up banners of yellow dust as it raced along, one summer’s morning years ago.”

I can remember it, Bob. I can remember what it looked like, even though I wasn’t there, and I’m part of the reason it’s gone.  I see it sometimes when I’m out walking my dog. It’s beautiful here.

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The List of Things I’ve Already Done

DSCN6275 Once upon a time, in the year 2002, during the my first summer as a married grown-up paying a mortgage to live in the house I grew up in on Duffy’s Creek, a small child went missing from the family next door because he was watching me scrub the green shit off the siding on the side of our little house, which is one of the many small joys of living on brackish water. Sort of like being Born on The Bayou, but not quite as cool. But I can still hear my old hound dog barking, chasin’ down a who do there. Chasin’ down a who do there.

I knew the small child. I guess he was about four years old. He’s the oldest son of one of the daughters of the people who used to live next door. I grew up with them. So I knew him and he knew me. And I knew his parents. And his grandparents, his uncles, his aunt, his great uncles and great aunts, and his great-grandparents for that matter. They’re all really nice people.

But being two years away from becoming a father myself, I didn’t realize how bugfuck you could get, and how quickly you could get bugfuck, if your kid disappeared. I thought the people next door knew that the four year-old boy was standing watching me scrub the green shit off the side of the house. I had no idea they were looking for him. And while they were looking for him, he and I were engaged in a fascinating and wonderful conversation, a line from which has become one of my all-time favorites. Here’s approximately how it went:

“What are you doing?”

“I’m cleaning this green stuff off the side of the house.”

“Why?”

“To make the house look nice. I had some time this afternoon, and it was bugging me. It’s been on my list of things to do for a long time now.”

“You have a list of things to do?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Do you have a list of things you’ve already done?”

(I stop dead in my tracks). “You know what?  I don’t. But I should.”

“You should.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

At this point, the young boy’s mother came running around the corner of the house frantically looking for him, and got pretty annoyed at me when she found him. And rightly so, as the first thing I should done when he wandered over was call over to their yard and tell them he was here. Again, I thought they know. No matter, as far as I know he’s about college age now, and doing well I’m sure. And he left me with a gem of a line that day:

A List of Things I’ve Already Done.

If you’re among the landed gentry, and you’re the co-CEO one of those little business called two jobs, a kid in school, a house, two cars, four animals and a garden, It’s a great stress beater that you can fall back on when you’re immediate List Of Things To Do becomes overwhelming. It makes you feel less whelmed. You take a step back and you consider what you HAVE accomplished already, and you think, “well, at least I did that. That’s on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done.”

There are things that are only on the list temporarily, of course. The kitty litter tracks and Mookie hair have to be vacuumed out of the carpet on a regular basis. I have to go hunting and gathering at the King Kullen pretty much every Friday night. And the school year is a ten-month ferris wheel. (I think I just admitted what I do for a living).

Then there are the annual things, especially in the springtime. Spreading seed, cleaning out the garden beds, cultivatin’, throwing down cow and/or chicken shit. Sunday April 23rd was the annual Early Spring Power Washing of the brick patios. It’s a beast of a job, especially since the handle of the power washer leaks now and I was completely soaked to the bone after an elapsed five hours of cleaning every brick with a 1400 pound per square inch stream of water about the width of a pencil eraser, but it makes the patio look brand new, and that makes me really, really happy, and it makes Trisha really, really happy because the patio is our happy, happy place. So I do it. Every Spring. And it was bubbling up on my List Of Things To Do since about the middle of March. But it was a really cold Spring up ’till about two weeks ago, which was OK by me ’cause I got in a couple of good naps.

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Our new roof and siding being installed in January.

And besides, the Annual Power Washing was especially sweet this year because we had the roof and siding replaced on the house, amazingly enough during the last week of January. If you’re on Long Island and you’re roof is falling down, call The Dude’s good friend John Roth at Responsible Remodeling. They are the single best company we’ve ever done business with, and the house looks brand new, at least the outside of it. The roof and siding were a gigantic elephant stepping on the head of The List of Things To Do. But because Trisha works really hard and is really good and successful at what she does, which of course I still don’t understand after sixteen and a half years, we were able to move it to the List Of Things We’ve Already Done, which makes up both happy every time we think of it. The house looks beautiful, a pretty little white Cape Cod with black shutters and no tiles missing from the roof and no water leaking into the laundry room, and it would sell a lot faster and for a lot more if we ever decide we have to get the hell out of here and buy that house on Main Street in Copake Falls. You sleep better at night knowing that. And there’s no green shit growing on the white vinyl siding anymore, so for the moment, that never even has to go on The List Of Things To Do, and I spend less time with the power washer, which at this point I’m perfectly fine with.

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13 Main Street Copake Falls, NY. On an acre of land for $209,000. I play Powerball weekly.

But once the weather gets nice, there’s a gigantic List of Things To Do. Some are amazingly complicated. Some you look at for months until you finally find the ten minutes that it actually takes to do them.

Sometime in the 1980’s, my mother had a white dogwood tree planted in the front yard. It was a tribute to her Aunt Nanny, who either had a white dogwood tree or really liked white dogwood trees. I really have no idea. Longtime readers know she talked a lot. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful tree, but when we fenced off the side yard in 2002 (and created “the Secret Garden”), the gate (which has needed replacement for four years, and sits stubbornly on the List Of Things To Do) opened right into the lower branches of the tree, so I raised it and turned into into a kind of big white dogwood umbrella with no lower branches, which is not a very nice thing to do to a white dogwood tree.

Then we put in the stone walled gardens when the great Valley Stream stone artist Alex Hoerlin built us a new driveway, front path and stoop in 2006, which buried the dogwood in six inches of topsoil. Then Hurricane Sandy swamped it and everything else in two feet of creek water in 2012. None of this, of course, was what the white dogwood signed up for thirty years ago, so as we embarked on 2016, it was a complete goner. Meanwhile, two small Wichita Blue junipers that I planted along the edge of the property line had become mostly Wichita Brown junipers. They had five years or so and they weren’t going anywhere except the brush pile. So I decided to pull them out, cut the dead tree down to the stump and plant a new white dogwood where the junipers were. Plus I needed something for the empty space in the backyard where we took out the Bradford Pear that wanted to kill us in the Hurricane, and I figured Dave (you don’t know Dave, but I do, and that’s all that matters) might give me a deal on two white dogwoods, and I’d have one for the backyard, too. ‘Cause they really are beautiful trees, and of course I carry a certain amount of guilt for killing my mother’s white dogwood tree. (The bradford pear was hers, too, but I couldn’t give a damn about that).

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Trisha and The 5 Year-Old Dude under the white dogwood tree, circa 2009. This was the first photo I ever posted on facebook. I’m thinking it’s being used to sell grass seed in Slovokia. Or something.

So around the first week of April, The Dude and I started sawing away at the dead white dogwood tree. The Dude enjoys work that involves physical pressure and force. It’s one of those sensory things with ASD and Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s in charge of peeling carrots and potatoes. He enjoys vacuuming and washing cars. And off course anything that involves using sharp grown up tools is an added bonus. As you’ll notice in the picture at the top of this post, he has a little way to go to get that last bit of stump off. Then I’m going to let him drill a giant hole in the middle of it and stick a post in it to hang a flower basket. This is something that can sit calmly for awhile on The List Of Things To Do.

Digging up the Mostly Dead Wichita Blue (Brown) Junipers jumped quickly from being on The List Of Things To Do to The List Of Things I’ve Already Done this past Monday morning, the beginning of a work week where I didn’t have to go to work. (School vacations were not my idea, so if you’re jealous I can’t help you. Do what I do). It all happened in less than half an hour. They are now part of the bulkhead the keeps the Creek at bay. Ha ha ha.

From there, with the help of my trustee sidekick, who was mostly very helpful for helping me get things done (and at one point was very helpful for taking a three hour nap on the couch so I could get things done) the List Of Things I’ve Already Done grew rapidly over the course of the week. I’m picturing a long scroll of paper being read by a guy from the Middle Ages, but you’ll have to settle for a middle aged guy on a MacBook Air to tell you about them. After I dug up the junipers, we went over to see Dave, but he didn’t have any white dogwood trees. Dave being Dave, he was willing to order them for me, but despite his eye rolling, we decided instead to take a ride down to Dee’s Nursery in Oceanside, which is a phenomenal place, and phenomenally expensive. But as Dave points out about Nurseries, “they don’t sell you ice in the winter.” And sure enough there were two little four-foot high white dogwoods, in bloom, waiting right there for me. Tommy Dee was happy to see me. Why on earth wouldn’t he be? I’m a guy who has 18 trees growing on a 60 x 105 plot of land and he’s seen plenty of that action. I’m a guy who’ll pay $129 each for two little trees, which I’m sure Tommy makes a nice profit on, but God bless him. He’s a good guy, and he knew I’d be coming for the white dogwoods.

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New white dogwood in the front yard, with the trunk of the old one looking on sadly. In the background you can see my neighbors house where there’s a beware of dog sign that was posted by the previous owner. The current dog is a miniature greyhound. That sign is the staring point of a very long blog post that won’t be on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done until August or so.

After we found the camera that The Dude put down in the shed he wasn’t supposed to go into, Duffy’s Creek’s two new white dogwood trees slid right into the back of Lou The Blue Subaru Outback, along with a bag of Plant Tone for the blueberries, who had a terrible year last year. On the way home, we stopped at Modell’s and got The Dude a pair of sneakers. His first pair of Adidas as a matter of fact, which I’ve been wearing exclusively for 25 years because I thought Mose Allison looked cool in them. We had Nathan’s hot dogs and french fries for lunch at the new “Little Nathan’s” that replaced the legendary Nathan’s on Long Beach Road. (They did a nice job adapting. I’m impressed). We went home and planted two new trees, which perhaps he will cut down with his own son someday.

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If you say you wouldn’t touch something with a ten-foot pole, you can envision this pole, which is ten feet off the ground and supports the Duffy’s Creek Acu Rite Weather Station. The Dude had the brilliant idea of marrying two six-foot long 4×4’s together. They’re sunk two feet into the ground with quickrete and gravel. I don’t know if it’s hurricane proof and I sure don’t want to find out.

Over the course of the rest of the week, we went back to Dee’s and bought $300 of organic garden soil (Bumper Crop, ask for it by name). I got the last of those bags of Bumper Crop down in the Rose Garden at 5:30 Saturday afternooon and I don’t want to see another bag of dirt until next April. We also went to Five Star Lumber and Hardware and bought two six foot poles, which The Dude married together using eight metal brackets, 32 screws and his trustee Black and Decker cordless drill. We mounted the Acu Rite Weather Station to the top of the pole and sunk it into two feet of gravel and Quickrete. Why? Because it was mounted on the railing of the garage roof and the wind gauge was being blocked by the house next door, which I couldn’t move. So moving it to a pole in the backyard went on The List Of Things To Do for four months, until Wednesday, when it officially joined The List Of Things I’ve Already Done. Of course, the wind hasn’t blown more than ten miles an hour since I moved it, so I’m not sure if it works any better yet.

While we were at Five Star, we also bought the supplies to paint the railing on the garage roof, which has been on The List Of Things To Do for at least seven years, but moved up a few notches once we had the roof and siding replaced and realized how crappy the railing looked unpainted. Weather permitting, that should be on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done by the end of May. We also have to replace the cellar door, which also now stands out like a bad actor now that the siding is new. There’s a company on Long Island called Man Products, which cracks me up, and which sells metal cellar doors. I insisted on a wood cellar door last time because I thought the rain on the metal cellar door right outside my bedroom window would interrupt my sleep. When the wooden door fell apart after five years, I decided to be less fussy, but I realized upon inspection that I would have to first fix the big crack in the foundation under the cellar door before I actually contact Man Products about replacing the door itself. It will stay on The List Of Things To Do for awhile longer, and just as well, ’cause I’m a little intimidated by Man Products.

Rounding out the list of Things I’ve Already Done that I did this week: The Dude wanted his own vegetable garden, so while he took a three hour nap on the couch Thursday afternoon after staying up all night the night before, I made him one. With broccoli, romaine lettuce, carrots and sugar snap peas ready to climb the trellis. Here it is:

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The Dude’s new vegetable garden and the new backyard white dogwood. (Note sign. I love that child) The antique fence from the Reising Farmhouse is going in the mess behind the dogwood.

I’m also proud that I set up two nice outdoor fountains this week including a little display on the patio with white jasmine and white petunias that Trisha has already dubbed, “The Zen Garden”. And of course I went back to see my friend Dave and bought a bunch of marigolds and petunias and two new Bluecrop blueberry bushes, so I can walk around in the yard in the summer smoking cigarettes and picking blueberries, thus getting my carcinogens and antioxidants at the same time. Plus I bought some lantana at Dee’s to put in planters on the patio, ’cause God knows we don’t have enough flowers. And I walked about 15 miles with Mookie over the course of the week. (We’re at 128.9 miles for the year. We’re shooting for 500. So we can sing the song).

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Mookie enjoying the gentle flowing water sounds in the newly-created Zen Garden @ Duffy’s Creek

On Wednesday afternoon, after we installed the ten-foot poll, we visited the nice guy who lives in the former Reising Farmhouse over on Hungry Harbor Road regarding a ten-foot panel of black cast iron fence with fleur-de-li finials that’s been sitting in his backyard next to Robert W. Carbonaro School for quite possibly my entire lifetime. The guy’s in-laws owned the house before him, which was built in 1920 and surrounded by a potato farm before the Reising’s sold the land to build Carbonaro School (formerly Harbor Road, until I was in 2nd grade and a guy named Carbonaro died) and Valley Stream South High School, which never did me any good and now I have to send my son there. My father-in-law, the great Jack McCloskey, was the second generation of a nursery business in Queens, and he remembered buying lime in the 1930’s or 40’s out of the big barn in the backyard of the Reising Farmhouse, which is still there. The rest of the land was sold to one Mr. Gibson, who built a whole lot of little Cape Cods here in 1950, one of which my parents bought.

I had my eye on the fence for about three or four years because I had just the place for it, where the bradford pear tree took down a piece of our fence during Hurricane Sandy. I’m pretty sure the fence used to be around the farmhouse property when I was a little feller, so as well as looking cool in the space I envisioned it, I’d have a little bit of the history of South Valley Stream right here in our backyard. You gotta like that. It was on the List Of Things To Do to see if the guy who lived in the house would either give me the fence or sell it to me. About six months ago, while out rambling with Mookie, I saw the guy outside, introduced myself, and found out that he had bought the house from his in-laws, who still own an antique store on Rockaway Avenue, and most of the stuff in the barn was antiques. When I finally got around to seeing him again this week, he told me that he wanted $150 for the fence. I got him down to $125. I tried to get him to $100 by saying the fence was just going to sit there until I bought it. He patiently explained to me that this was the whole point of antiques. They get older. So I’m going to accept his offer, but only if he lets us peak inside the barn.

The only problem is, the fence is very, very heavy. But yet again, the solution is that The Dude is a genius and saves things because he might need them later. Last year, he scavenged a sliding closet door from his friends two doors away who are renovating their house. When I threw out a desk before Christmas, he scavenged the casters. I’ve been meaning to throw both of these things out when he wasn’t looking, but I’m glad I didn’t, as we now have the materials for making a giant rolling pallet, which we can use to roll the fence from the Reising farmhouse to the Duffy’s Creek Tenant Farm. It’s on The List Of Things To Do right now. God willing, it will be on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done by this time next week.

Tomorrow, I turn 53 years old. The List Of Things I’ve Already Done is enough to get me right to sleep most nights. Of course, if Trisha hadn’t been nice enough to marry me, I would have been an abject failure. But she did, and we’ve built a nice little life for ourselves. We have a nice long List Of Things We’ve Already Done. Then again, we’ve never been to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. We’d both like to see San Francisco. We’d also like the Dude to see Ireland and love it like we did, which he will. Trisha wants nothing to do with the fact that I’d like to buy a kayak or a canoe and annoy the idiots that run Hempstead Town and Nassau County into opening up the flood gate that holds Duffy’s Creek back from the waterways that lead out to Jamaica Bay and building a boat launch along the public path on the Left Bank. I think that would be cool. All that taken into consideration, I also want to spend as much time with Mookie Dog as possible, because he’s going to be five this week, and dogs are designed to break your heart someday. And he doesn’t like boats. Trisha doesn’t like both either and I want to spend as much time as possible with her, too.

In the next ten years or so, maybe twenty, we both have to  work like hell to help a brilliant but delicate young psyche find his way from 12 years old to adulthood, complete with all the disappointments and heartbreak, triumphs and perseverance that it will surely involve. I think if I can make it to retirement, I might have a book or two in me, but If I don’t quit smoking at some point I’m plain fucked, and right now it ain’t looking good. That’s the subject for yet another blog post.

Speaking of which, It’s been four months since I’ve published a blog post. I have three that are sitting in draft stage. One is about my history  as a passionate follower of the New York Mets. One is about the evolution of my relationship with food. Another is about my musical heroes. And since The Mets, food and music account for about 55 to 60% of my available brain space, there’s a lot to write. And I have to get up and go to work in seven hours. So those creative writing endeavors will have to sit around in the waiting room flipping through magazines while they are on the List Of Things To Do. This one? This one is now officially on The List Of Things I’ve Already Done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s Nothing Wrong Here: Our Annual Day at Splish Splash

Sometimes we’re a little bit arrogant here at Duffy’s Creek regarding how we spend our free time vs. how other people spend their free time. It’s a really obnoxious and pointless way to be and we’re trying to get over it. While we can’t fathom why anybody would go near any shopping mall unless they had to, or why anybody would want to go to a casino, or on a cruise ship, or to the state of Florida, or spend one minute watching  95% of the movies and TV shows that get thrown at us, the fact is you’ve got to live and let live. As I’m writing this, I’m watching grown men in matching pajamas playing with balls and bats. Who’s to say what’s a waste of time?

lsI guess for us it’s mostly about avoiding the crowd. We feel so packed in just living on Long Island that the idea of subjecting ourselves to a large crowd of people (that isn’t chanting “Let’s Go Mets!” or staring at the ocean) is just not something that seems like fun.

And then there’s Splish Splash.

If you’re not familiar with it, Splish Splash is a 95-acre water park at the end of the Long Island Expressway off the Calverton / Riverhead exit. It’s a good hour and a half from here in Sunday morning traffic. For four of the last five years, we have willingly made that trip once a summer to wade through crowds of half naked people, wait on really long lines for really fast rides and inhale chlorine fumes for five hours or so. And we’ll do it again next year. I think I can speak for Mrs. Duffy here when I say that for me to go to Great Adventure or Dorney Park would require kidnapping me and throwing me in the trunk of your car.  And I guess if you did, I’d probably end up having fun if I survived the trip. But I won’t go on my own. Why? I’m not sure. Why do we love Splish Splash? I have my theories.

When they first opened in 1991, I remember hearing about it and thinking that it sounded like a fun place – if you weren’t a 28 year-old hipster doofus who had a seemingly cool job working at a magazine in the city and who hung out with people who never came out in the daylight. Those were days when my circumstances were very far from my true essence. I was trying to live a life that other people thought was cool, and deep down I wanted to be just another grinning idiot flying down a water slide. But I didn’t see myself going to Riverhead with a bunch of friends to ride the Giant Twister, ’cause I didn’t have a bunch of friends to go with, or with which to go. Many of my high school friends were already taking their own little kids to places like Splish Splash while I was hanging out in places with too much mascara. Then, in the fall of ’99, I met the woman I would marry, who likes the sun, and trees and birds and things like that. Our first two dates involved the Long Beach Boardwalk and flying a kite on the beach, so I knew I was on the right track. I’m happy to say that I left all vestiges of hipster city-guy life, and all the pallid people who go with it, back in the 20th Century. For the last 16 years, I’ve just been a happy doofus. So as soon as The Dude was old enough, I said the words to my wife that I had wanted to say to somebody for 12 years: “Hey! Let’s Go to Splish Splash!” And she liked everything about that idea.

The Dude was six the first year we went. The first thing I noticed when we got there is there were actually shade trees lining all the paths around the park, and lots of trees between the rides and pools. For some reason I hadn’t expected any trees at all. It’s really a beautiful place. It’s a park with a giant pool infrastructure built into it. The second thing I noticed is that no matter how big it gets, and what sort of insane rides they add, Splish Splash aims for a sort of “Land That Time Forgot” vibe, from the goofy parrot show to the dippin’ dots and carnival games, right down to the typefaces they use on the signs and the music soundtrack where everything is either from the 70’s or sounds like it is. I was instantly charmed. And I knew it was going to be crowded, so I prepared myself for that. And Lord it was crowded.

But I noticed something else right away. Many subsets in this huge crowd were big, extended families: Grandmas and aunts and uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters, all making a day of it, and all of whom required a ticket between $30 and $40 to get in. And many of these families, whatever color or flavor they were, didn’t look like the most prosperous members of the general population of Suffolk County or the surrounding area. To the uninitiated, “Out East” is the land of Hamptons Horse Shows and Writer and Artist Softball Games and Rock Star Mansions. But if you’re from Long Island, you know that there are a lot of pretty hardscrabble corners you can get to on the LIE. And you’ll find people with white, black or caramel mocha latte skin in these towns, but since the county at large is still pretty segregated, not necessarily in the same neighborhoods. But the fact is, there are people from parts of Suffolk like North Bellport and Central Islip and Mastic Beach who are all in the same economic boat, the one that sinks shortly after it misses a paycheck. It’s the same situation that millions of people in the outer boroughs of NYC find themselves in, and lots of them escape their cages for a day in the summertime to bring the whole family to Splish Splash. And for a family of ten people to spend over $500 to spend a day at a water park, when it’s entirely possible that the breadwinners of those families are making the minimum wage, is no small thing.

And I don’t think they’re being overcharged. I’m sure the owners of Splish Splash are making a nice healthy profit, but they deserve it, because they run a good business. It’s sparkling clean, fully-staffed, totally safe, and amazingly well-run for a place of it’s size. You get your money’s worth. It cost my little family of three $148, plus $24 for lunch, probably about $7 of gas and $3.50 for Daddy’s to go coffee on the way out. But we drove home with the feeling a euphoria that you get when you have a really, really fun day, and judging by the smiles that pass by you in waves as you walk through Splish Splash, I’m sure those big families had the time of their lives and made some great memories. (By the way, if there’s no line, that’s because the food is terrible. Stay away from the burgers on the boardwalk and go to Johnny Rockets Diner up by the Kahuna Bay Wave Pool. This is not a service article or a review, but you needed to know that).

But here’s the best part: If you factor out the recent “pay us more and cut the line” incentives that amusement parks are now pushing (the one at Splish Splash is called the “H2Go Pass” and costs between $40 and $60  – and I’ve never seen that many people using them) once you have bought that ticket and passed through that turnstile, you are an equal citizen of Splish Splash, with the same rights and privileges to jump around and woot and holler as every person you see. Even with the silly cabanas that they try to get you to rent, Splish Splash is a Democratic Socialist state. And like all Democratic Socialist States, it’s a great place to be a kid. Even a kid with sensory processing issues. And even if it takes a little while to warm up to it.

d9eaa4643b33fd9e3c3e280a4d1a81f5Our first stop in our first year was the Lazy River. First of all, holy crap what a great idea! You get in an inflatable tube and you float for twenty minutes, the water carries you forward and you end up where you started. You also have the option of going under periodic showers of water or steering around them.  It is Trisha Duffy’s ultimate amusement park ride. She was all like this is the best thing ever. (She admires sloths). I don’t remember who rode the two-person tube with the Six-Year-Old Dude, but he loved it as well, as long as no one said the word “inflatable” (he was afraid of it at the time) and his head was never completely submerged in the water (which at the time would cause a meltdown as quick as you can say, “inflatable”). We spent the rest of the day doing what you can do at Splish Splash if you’re happily shackled to a six year-old boy. We watched him go down the nice easy water slides and run around around in the kids area, then we made our way over to the wave pool, where he got to wear a life preserver and was therefore in heaven for a good hour or more. We left already planning to come back the next year.

And we did. And we headed right for the Lazy River, which is, as I mentioned, my wife’s whole Splish Splash raison d’etre. And then the wheels came off. Trisha made a wrong move getting The Dude into the two-person raft and he was submerged over his head in two and a half feet of water for approximately three quarters of a second. And he threw a wicked meltdown and yelled and screamed and cried and carried on. I was already floating away at this point, and was ready to come back, but Trisha told me to keep on going. I told her that I’d get him when I came back and she would get her turn, but she was so pissed at the whole situation that she just didn’t want to. So she never got to go on the Lazy River that day. The Dude calmed down and we sat bored out of our minds at the kiddie area and the wave pool for the rest of the day.

The “Holland” story about acceptance of kids on the Spectrum has been around long enough that lots of people have heard it, but I’ll run you through it anyway in case you haven’t. It was written by a woman named Emily Perl Kingsley. I looked that up. The deacon at my church said once that he’d kill the next person who told it to him when he mentioned autism, and it is an oversimplification, but I think it makes a lot of sense. Here it is in a nutshell: When you find out you’re going to have a baby, it’s like you’re going on a fabulous trip to Italy. You’re going to see the Sistine Chapel, The Mona Lisa, The Tower, The Vatican, all that stuff. You’re stoked. You buy guide books and you try to pick up a little Italian. You get on the plane and six hours later the pilot announces that you’ll be landing in Holland instead, and you have to stay there. At first you don’t know what the hell to do, and you’re trying not to be pissed but you are. And then you have your breakthrough. Holland is really nice. There’s windmills and tulips and friendly helpful people. It’s a different place, but it’s a beautiful place just the same. You buy new guidebooks and learn some Dutch and you forget you ever wanted to go to Italy.

I’ve said it before and It’s time to say it again: The Dude may or may not be autistic. He’s been classified as such because school has been really difficult for him. And he exhibits some of the tendencies of an “Aspergian”: The monologue, the awkwardness, the sensory processing issues, the social cluelessness, the obsessions and compulsions.

We love him and wouldn’t change him. But we’re humans. There have been times, and the aborted Lazy River Trip of 2011 was one of those times, where we felt like saying fuck Holland, We hate it here. Be normal for Christ’s sake. Just stop.

We always come out of it, mostly because it’s an awful way to be, and we’re humans. But we also come out of it because The Dude keeps learning from his meltdowns. He’s still has them, but their frequency and duration have been decreasing every year. He keeps on getting better. He keeps on learning about himself and making adjustments. He keeps surprising us to the point where it’s hard to surprise us anymore, and it’s been the most beautiful experience of our life together to not only watch him grow up, but to watch him rise up.

And what have we done to help him? Everything we could think of, as much of it as possible. And If it worked, we kept doing it, and if it didn’t we stopped doing it and did something else. Our pediatrician, who may or may not know that he and I were in the same graduating class of Valley Stream South, ’cause neither one of us has ever mentioned it, suggested to us that kids like The Dude sometimes “grow out” of some of the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome, but what they’re really doing is learning how to ameliorate those symptoms, learning how to put them aside or rationalize them, or see the irrationality of them by developing a higher self that looks down. He ‘s starting to understand that his “condition” is a gift. A unique way of seeing the world and a unique set of skills to bring to that world. Teenage angst will come, and we’ll deal with it together. But right now, he’s cool with being a little weird. And this is what we’ve been trying to instill in The Dude for eleven and a half years. Look at yourself, then look around. Figure out what’s real and what’s in your head. Celebrate your strengths and fight like hell against your weaknesses.

For the last two years, The Dude has been a magnificent fish in the water, and we get to the pool and the beach as much as we can. We even keep it going with the indoor pool at Echo Park, where Daddy can sit in the sauna with the old Russian guys on cold winter afternoons. The boy who wouldn’t let his head get wet jumps off the diving board, swims out to the deep end, does summersaults underwater, even lets me throw him backwards in the Valley Stream Pool. He’s overcome his demons and is a much happier person for it.

imageAnd for the last three years at Splish Splash, we all floated solo on the Lazy River, then scared the hell out of the sloth enthusiast with a trip down the Mammoth River in the big raft. Then she watched as The Dude and I did a couple of trips down Dinosaur Falls. The whole dinosaur aspect of it is so Splish Splash Cheesy, which is why I love it. They put a couple of dinosaurs along the big twisting water slide because calling it “The Big Twisting Water Slide” didn’t have the mythology they were going for. Although the big slide in the center of the park, which we’re doing next year, is called “The Giant Twister”. Go figure.

This year we overcame the demons of Shotgun Falls. It’s a simple water slide that sends you down twenty feet in two seconds, whereupon you are catapulted through a waterfall and a geyser and dropped five feet off the slide into a ten-foot deep pool at about sixty miles an hour. Then you swim out. Nothing to it. I was trying to get him to do it last year and he was absolutely adamant that he was not going near it. And I didn’t push it. Because you don’t push it in Holland if you know what’s good for you. This year I suggested it again. And he was adamantly against it, until he decided to force himself to do it. I went down two times. May I suggest having the common sense my son has and holding your nose when you hit the water. Just as a heads up. He went down three times, right along with a bunch of young jock kids his age, who all looked like they’d been flying down this thing since they were three. They never suspected. And The Dude was on top of the world when he hit the bottom of that slide.

Shotgun-Falls-splish-splash-water-park-13804280-400-315ispmf_phototour30

6-20-14-and-waterparks-175-1After the pretty bad lunch which we’ll improve on next year, we got to sit around the beloved Monsoon Lagoon for the better part of an hour. It’s impossible to really explain the Monsoon Lagoon so I will refer you to the accompanying picture, which of course I took without permission. (I didn’t tell them to post it on the Internet).

You will notice that there’s a big ship-like structure on the top of the Monsoon Lagoon. Every fifteen minutes or so, it dumps a large volume of water on whoever is lucky enough to be standing under it. The life guard on duty at the Monsoon Lagoon very well may have been working his last shift at Splish Splash before he left for SUNY Oneota, because he was letting The Dude and the other kids go down the slide backwards head first. Usually you don’t see a lot of civil disobedience in the Socialist Democratic Republic of Splish Splash. People are treated with equality and respect. It’s clean, you get to spend quality time with your family and there are opportunities to have fun, maybe take a risk or two. Not to mention plenty of bathrooms. Why would anybody act up? Give ’em a country like that and watch how well people would co-exist.

And that’s what Trisha and I were watching and thinking about as we relaxed at the Monsoon Lagoon, while our young maniac romped and played and created a good childhood memory for himself. We were watching a young couple, part of a larger extended family, introducing their very small baby girl to the wonders of a kiddie pool. The young daddy in particular made a striking impression on me. I didn’t get to be a daddy until I was forty. This kid was maybe twenty-two and he was enraptured by his beautiful baby daughter. His smile literally sparkled in the sunshine. He was so damn happy. They sat in the water together, and pretty soon the mommy sat down, and some older cousins sat down and they all sat there in the water watching this little girl explore this wonderful place that they had taken her. In her world and in our son’s world, this place is perfect. There’s nothing wrong here.

And outside the gates of The Socialist Democratic Republic of Splish Splash, buffoons in suits spewed more hate to capitalize on the lowest common denominator in people’s souls. They talked about building walls and rounding people up, or tracking them like Fed Ex packages. And people whose jobs suck and are broke all the time start to believe that the problem is immigration, when the real problem is the greedy bloodsuckers who bankroll the buffoons in the suits.

I am a second-generation American. My paternal grandparents emigrated here from Ireland a hundred years ago. I’m sure they took some crap, but they came anyway, because this country was worth sacrifice, worth risks. And let’s say my guess is right, and that young daddy at Splish Splash is a first-generation American, like my father, who also had a little baby when he was twenty-two as a matter fact, and probably smiled just as brightly. Or maybe this young man and others in his family snuck in to this country, and his daughter is the first-generation American.

Well if that’s the case, young feller, as far as I’m concerned, you’re doing it right.

It’s not your fault that the laws regarding your legal status have been outdated for years because no group of politicians has had the will or power or cajones to do anything about it. And if they call your little daughter an “anchor baby” or the next awful thing they think of, don’t worry about it. All their talk about immigration is nothing but coded racism, and anyone who thinks America was better when it was whiter better start swimmin’ or they’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin’. Their outdated ideas will drown in a Lazy River of ignorance.

You and I will keep coming back here with our kids every summer, young feller, and we’ll watch them grow up. And better yet, we’ll watch them rise up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gansta Cat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well played, old lady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor Guy

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They don’t whine. They don’t bore you with the details of their assorted aches and pains. There’s no such thing as a hypochondriac dog. That’s why they’re called noble beasts. And why we’re not noble beasts. They don’t curse when they feel the pain. They don’t yell at the nearest person. The worst you’ll hear is a high-pitched “YOLP!!!”. Last November, when Mookie got attacked by a pit bull who chomped into his ear and wouldn’t let go, he made that sound over and over again until I punched the pit bull in the face, The owners who stood there doing nothing were spared. Although The Dude, who witnessed the attack, gave them a nice earful as I tended to Mookie. And he kept Mookie’s bloody ear in a cold compress all the way to the vet’s office. I was proud of him. Still, I’m haunted to this day by the sound of Mookie screaming “YOLP!!!” until I got the dog off of him. Bleeding from his ear, probably scared and most certainly still in pain, he didn’t say a word from there on. And it was a forty-five minute drive to the vet’s office. Once the initial pain was over, he just looked at me – with those eyes- as if to say, “Why? Why is there evil?”

That particular incident happened at Stump Pond in Blydenburgh State Park, Smithtown, Long Island, where a lot of smart people bring their well-trained dogs, and as it turned out, two stupid people brought an untrained dog one time. Not knowing the stupid people had joined us that afternoon, I was lulled into a false sense of security and let Mookie go swimming without the 15-foot extended leash I usually use.  He went over to say hi to some people around a cove and their dog chomped into his ear. The whole experience was right awful, and it took Mookie a little while to trust dogs again. He still gets nervous when dogs sniff at his ear.  And of course, besides the trauma of seeing my friend in pain, it turned out to be a $400 mistake. I love my vet, but that was a lot of money. And of course I said I was going to get pet health insurance after that and never got around to that.

And that blatant act of procrastination may have cost me $325 last night, but I’m not sure if “hotspots” are covered. Your hotspots allow you to read this. Lucky you. A labrador retrievers hotspots are misery. Dog hotspots are technically known as moist dermatitis, because they’re a skin infection that is made worse by moistness. Like if your dog jumps into his pool after a good long walk then takes a nap in the air conditioning. Hotspots are also called pyotraumatic dermatitis because the dog makes them worse by scratching and licking at the wound. (I’m sure some of you have pyotraumatic troubles of your own. I know I do). Hotspots are common among dogs with thick undercoats during warm weather. As I understand it, from how the nice vet explained it to me last night, all the bacteria in the dog send messages to each other to let each other know the presence of a small wound, and suddenly there’s a bacteria flash mob. And it can happen in a matter of hours.

Mookie started with a little pimple on the side of his face on Friday afternoon. it might have been a bug bite or a cat scratch or a dog nip – I couldn’t quite tell. It looked like a pimple. Then it got bigger. Within a day, it was oozey and bloody and quite disgusting at that. Fortunately, dogs don’t spend a lot of time looking in mirrors, so he couldn’t see how horrible he looked, though I doubt that would make a difference to a noble beast. He didn’t scratch at it too much, but he kept looking at me sort of helplessly. He didn’t say “YOLP!!!” but he was trying to tell me how much it hurt. And I couldn’t tell him that I was staying in denial of another giant vet bill for as long as I could.

My denial lasted until we got back from visiting Grandma in Point Lookout on Sunday afternoon. The entire side of Mookie’s face was covered in matted blood and the bloody, oozey mass was huge and growing. At that point, I had no idea it was a hotspot. I had heard of them when I was researching labradors, but he’d never had one before. So I had no idea what was going on with my silent, noble friend. All I knew is I didn’t want to see him suffer.

My own vet’s office was closed. Another vet across town, who friends of mine have raved about, are open 24 hours a day. I called them and explained why I wanted to bring Mookie in, and just tell me now what the emergency fee is. It’s $135. Trisha said, “It’s Mookie. Take a credit card.” I told them I’d be over in fifteen minutes.

Mookie didn’t seems like he was in too much pain once he had new sensory input. Lots of pee-mail messages outside the building. A cat in a cage in the waiting room. A receptionist that called him sweetie and came down to eye level. And a guy walking around the waiting room with tears in his eyes, who didn’t want to acknowledge either one of us. And I didn’t want to acknowledge that I will more than likely be that guy someday. I don’t know what was going on with the guy’s dog, but I knew we were in for a wait, and I accepted that.

They put us in a very small, very warm examination room about a half hour into the wait. A nice young assistant came in and took Mookie’s vitals. While we waited another fifteen minutes, I started googling and read about all sorts of horrible growths and basal cell tumors and the like. I was starting to feel pushed off-course. Mookie was concerned about the noises of animals and people he couldn’t see. We both concentrated on breathing.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later we saw the vet, who kept me hanging for a good ten more minutes before announcing “moist dermatitis, also known as a hotspot.” So that’s what a hotspot looks like. Duly noted. My dog’s not going to have surgery or die today. All good. Now what do you do about it and how much?

The first thing they do is shave and clean the affected area, which is a very good thing. Payment for emergency professional diagnosis and wound treatment, plus a bottle of antibiotics. All to be expected. In my head I was at about $225. The vet took Mookie into a back room to shave and clean up his face. I started googling again while I waited.

You know what works for hotspots? Gold Bond Medicated Powder. And tea bags. You know what else works? A $52 dollar, two-ounce bottle of Nolvasan/HB101/DMSO, plus a $38 dollar, 60 milliliter bottle of Gentocin Topical Spray plus a $36 cone of shame. Total bill? $401 dollars.

Ok, for starters, he’s not really scratching at it so let’s skip the $36 cone. It’s just going to drive him nuts. Ok, Mr. Duffy, that’s your choice, but if he scratches at the wound and opens it it will take longer to heal. You think? Secondly, once I begin giving the dog antibiotics from the $95 bottle I just bought, we can’t I just treat him with tea bags and Gold Bond Medicated Powder? I’ve seen both remedies listed in five websites in the time I’ve been sitting here. Well, Mr. Duffy if you don’t want the medication we can make an adjustment there.

$75 of adjustments later ( I sucked it up and bought the Nolvasan) Visa was nice enough to lend me $325, at a billion percent interest compounded every second, and I settled the bill with the vet’s office. They were all thoroughly professional, nice people. And because of them I know a hotspot when I see one and hopefully I won’t see another one anytime soon.

We have a little joke around here: When Mookie is panting a hot day, or we’re leaving and we’re not taking him with us, or something’s happening and he doesn’t know what it is (which happens a lot), I’ll look at him, and say “poor guy!” And Trisha, imagining Mookie’s thoughts at that moment, will say, “Am I a poor guy? Why am I a poor guy? I don’t feel like a poor guy. Why do you keep saying that?”

He’s not a poor guy. He has a family that loves him and showers him with attention. He gets to go for long walks and rides in the car, and he gets big hugs and butt scratchies and belly rubs and treats and chewy bones and comfortable places to nap. And there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for him if he’s suffering, except get blatantly ripped off. Because he’s our noble beast.

I’m a poor guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSCN5999
Children’s Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goldfinch and Associates: Landscape Architects – A Tour of The Gardens @ Duffy’s Creek

We growIMG_1430 a lot of flowers here on Duffy’s Creek. And trees, and bushes, and vegetables. And we’ve spent way, way too much money doing it. And it takes a lot of time and grunting to maintain what we’ve done from year to year. But I tell you what: I’ve walked around a lot of neighborhoods with Mookie Dog these last four years, and I’ve gotten a good look at a lot of peoples’ properties while Mookie sniffed and peed on the nearest telephone poles (The Dude gets credit for coming up with: “he’s reading his pee mail.”). In the world of property ownership, and what a wonderful world it is, I have come to believe that people who have flowers growing around their house are the people who look like they’re enjoying their stay on Earth a bit more than the people who don’t. And they  probably are. I know I am. Of course if the homeowner is elderly or disabled it isn’t a fair statement, but still, if you can grow some flowers and you don’t, it looks to me like you just don’t care in general, and you probably don’t. Is that arrogant? It might be arrogant. Hell, I don’t know. I’d just like to take you on a tour of Gardens @ Duffy’s Creek. You like flowers? We got some flowers for ya today.

Trisha's Rose Garden. The big show is in the spring and fall. I'll post more pictures then
Trisha’s Rose Garden. The big show is in the spring and fall. I’ll post more pictures then

It doesn’t matter where we start, since you’re not actually here, so we can start where it all started. Trisha and I bought the old Duffy Family House on The Creek in 2001 from my parents, who moved to a Lifecare Community. My mom kind of went kicking and screaming, mostly because she loved the backyard on the Creek. Trisha’s family owned an operated a Florist and Nursery, McCloskey’s  on Woodhaven Boulevard in Rego Park, Queens for 86 years, Her grandfather started out by selling flowers for putting on graves in St. John’s Cemetery across the street. So as soon as she saw the backyard of this place, she knew what she wanted to do with it. The first thing she did was clear a whole lot of crap (her newlywed husband dug up a few tree roots for her) and plant this Hybrid Tea Rose Garden. I love that all the plants have names and little stories, but I can’t keep any of them straight. Still, I like hearing about them. And truly, there’s just nothing like roses. I don’t know what smells you associate with your spouse (Cheese? Cinnamon? Ben-Gay?) but to me the smell of hybrid tea roses, whatever the hell their names are, remind me how much I love my wife. Isn’t that nice?

The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden

We have a big six-foot wood stockade fence along the back of the Rose Garden, courtesy of some former psychotic neighbors who will get their own post one of these days. I’ll even name them for you. Anyway, the point at which the rose garden meets the house and the stockade fence is Trisha’s “Secret Garden”, which has more Hybrid Teas, plus some climbing roses and Clematis on arbors and some various perennials, the Lupines being my favorite, if only because of the silly Monty Python sketch. There’s some bitchin foxglove in there. And it’s a great place to hide from The Dude.

Around front, you get to Trisha’s Cottage Garden, modeled after a Thomas Kinkade painting if he dropped acid, which has a lot of beautiful perennials and some good smellin’ Mock Orange and Quince, plus this cool guy called a Purple Beautyberry Bush which is owned and defended by an insane Mockingbird.

Trisha's front yard Cottage Garden. It's a scene, Man.
Trisha’s front yard Cottage Garden. It’s a scene, Man.

Me, I always liked playing in the dirt. As a matter of fact, when I was very young in this very backyard I had a “diggy spot.” And when I was 30 and stuck living back with my parents after going through surgery and chemotherapy for testicular cancer, I decided to start a little garden out where my “diggy spot” used to be.  And my mom liked planting flowers, too. So one day in 1993 we went to Dee’s Nursery in Oceanside together – which in itself is a great memory – and she sprung for some perennials and bulbs to get that garden started. There’s still a couple of hyacinths that come up every year from that garden, but for the most part it got too shady under my neighbor’s giant oak tree to really get anything good growing there. So after my mom died in 2012, I planted a Colorado Blue Spruce as a memorial to her, thus taking the “diggy spot” out of the active flower gardening area. I’ve never visited her grave, and I don’t know if I ever will. If I need to talk to her, she’s right here.

The Colorado Blue Spruce I planted as a memorial to my mom in 2012 so she could keep an eye on things. This was my
The Colorado Blue Spruce I planted as a memorial to my mom in 2012 so she could keep an eye on things. This was my “diggy spot” as a little feller, and when I was 30.

When we moved back here in 2001, I started noticing the birds. And the ducks and the geese and the other assorted characters – osprey, egrets, kingfishers, terns, herons and cormorants to name a few- who made their living on the Creek. We had a lot of songbirds, too.  Unfortunately, one of the reasons was that the whole place was overgrown and they had lots of places to hide. Once we put up some bird feeders, it was madness. One January twilight we had over 20 cardinals dancing around in the snow. We don’t have as many birds now because we had to take down two massive maple trees and a pear tree before they killed us in a hurricane. (And there was one, and they didn’t. And we of course replaced those trees, but these things take time). Back when we started, I wrote down all the species of birds I saw and when I saw them in a spiral notebook (very neatly ’cause I’m OCD), then I looked them up and found out what they were doing here, and what they wanted for dinner. I have a list of about 115 bird species that have passed through or by this property. I will put that list up as a separate post sometime soon. It recently may or may not have helped earned South Valley Stream $3 million dollars in New York Rising Recovery grant money, but that’s a story for another day.

Anyway, around this same time, we started taking hikes through Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is a long way from here but connected by water, and noticing not only the birds but the plants. This led to the Duffy’s Creek Bird Sanctuary. We started trying to use as much garden space as possible for bird-friendly habitat plants and stuff that grew here naturally. This led to the Wetland Gardens that run between the yard and the Creek, which is actually planted on land that belongs to Nassau County. But screw ’em, they don’t deserve it.

The Wetlands
The Wetlands

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In the wetlands are Rosa Rugosa and Red Twig Dogwood and Winterberry Holly, a Weeping Willow Tree, a Butterfly Bush and one of our signature specimens, the Great Leaning Cedar of Duffy’s Creek. It was a four-foot tall Eastern Red Cedar bought from Dee’s Nursery. I really had to wonder about myself when I planted a $139 tree on property that I don’t actually own, but no matter. The Red Cedar got really tall, probably about 15 feet or more. Then Hurricane Sandy came along and knocked it to a 45 degree angle. My brother came down from Connecticut to help us out with the mess about a week after the storm. We raised the Cedar back up and he tied it to the fence using one of the knots that he learned in Boy Scouts and I didn’t. The Cedar survived, but it leans like the Tower of Pisa now. So we call our backyard The Leaning Cedar Cafe @ Duffy’s Creek, ’cause we like the way it sounds.

When we first moved in, we had a deck. It was a very 1970’s deck, probably because it was built in the 1970’s. And it was slowly rotting away. The final straw for the deck was when a cat caught a mallard and left his decapitated head under the step. It was a little too evocative of “The Godfather”, but I digress again. Around that same time, we took a day trip from Copake Falls to visit the Stockbridge Botanical Gardens in Stockbridge, Mass. Here we met some of the “Herb Associates”, whose name still inspires giggle fits around here. Basically a bunch of old ladies who planted and maintained an herb garden just off the kitchen of the house at the gate of the Gardens.

We were already planning to replace the deck with a loose-laid brick patio. The “Herb Associates” inspired us to include a little garden with some sage and lavender and thyme and oregano and mint. And then we just kept going, and started adding lots of cool perennials, dahlias and zinnias from seed.

Patio Garden looking out towards Duffy's Creek, taken from the attic window
Patio Garden looking out towards Duffy’s Creek, taken from the attic window. You can also see my Quaking Aspen, which transports me to Lake Kushaqua in the Adirondack Mountains every time a breeze blows through.

Soon enough it was the insane garden you can see in the foreground of this picture. Some of the coreopsis and rubekia and hellenium and Mexican Sunflowers grow over six feet tall. We call them by their latin name: “Crazius Bastardus.” The patio garden is our landing place. It’s the nicest room in the house in the summer, and consequently, we watch a lot less TV. It’s where you sit and stare for five minutes  – or an hour- when you’re between things you have to do, or walk around and crush leaves between your fingers, take a big whiff and say, “damn that’s good!” At least we do.

Patio Garden
Patio Garden. Real gardeners rarely put away the hose.
Patio Garden
Patio Garden with Crazius Bastardus on display.

As you can see, the patio garden has some nice bee balm. And when you have perennials, you can make the same jokes at the same time every year. As soon as one of us mentions that the bee balm is coming into bloom, the other will either do a Monty Python falsetto and say, “Whatcha bringin’ a balm in here for!” or do the Jackie Childs voice from Seinfeld. “A balm? Nobody know what a balm will do! They’re unpredictable!” We try to have fun.

The patio garden. The bench is dedicated to our sister-in-law, who loved to exchange garden stories with us. Her spirit can visit and see what we're up to.
The patio garden in all it’s glory. The bench is dedicated to our sister-in-law, who loved to exchange garden stories with us. Her spirit can visit and see what we’re up to.
Patio Garden from another angle. The MAESTRO gave you a balm?
Patio Garden from another angle. The MAESTRO gave you a balm?

Along the side of the house this year I have some, OK a thousand, black eyed susans growing quite untidily. Usually I insist on tidy, but I’m letting them have their fun. Last year I planted a thousand black-eyed susan seeds in the Wetlands and in this spot, where I was out of ideas, and in one year they have naturalized and become our own resident wildflower. They are pretty weeds.  God bless ’em.

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We also have eight blueberry bushes in large planters which have been producing phenomenal fruit for us and the Robins, Catbirds, Song Sparrows and Mockingbirds for ten years now.

Blueberries and Vegetables, and more crazy Black-Eyed Susies.
Blueberries and Vegetables, and more crazy Black-Eyed Susies.

During the Hurricane Sandy storm surge, the blueberry bushes floated on down the block. We found them the next day on various front lawns around the neighborhood. A neighbor with a van brought us two that he found at the high school at the end of the street, about a quarter of a mile away. We have a dog kennel that we bought when we first got Mookie, but that he decided he didn’t like one damn bit because we weren’t in there with him. We were going to sell it, then we realized it would come in handy in the next Hurricane as a place to put anything that might float away down the street.

Hurricane Sandy (I hate “Superstorm”) didn’t do the damage to us here in South Valley Stream as it did in points south, specifically East Rockaway, Oceanside, Island Park and Long Beach, which all got walloped. But it did take out some of our favorite specimens. We had two little Christmas trees growing on the side of the garage, a Frasier Fir and a Balsam Fir. We were going to make them our last two Chistmas Trees here someday if we had a choice in the matter. But the brackish water from the surge killed them, as well as a Mountain Laurel that had survived for 60 years and two outrageously beautiful Burkwood Viburnum bushes outside the front window. But when life hands you lemons and all that, we turned the space along the garage into a nice vegetable garden, where we’ve started feeding ourselves as well as the birds. We have carrots, celery, broccoli and cucumbers growing there now. I use the cucumbers to make homemade Bread and Butter Pickles, because I can. Actually because I jar, but no matter. The best part of making bread and butter pickles for me is being able adopt Robin Williams’ silly, exaggerated Scottish accent and scream at my wife, “Damn it, Woman! I’m makin’ The brine right now!” I never get tired of that one.

Carrots, Celery, Broccoli, Cucumbers.
Carrots, Celery, Broccoli, Cucumbers.

Of course, every good gardener knows that you go through a lot of experimentation and a lot of failure on your way to creating a successful patch. That’s the thing that Thomas Jefferson and I have in common most of all. The spot outside the front window has seen and lost Two holly bushes, the aforementioned Viburnum, a peach tree that was really cool but was under constant siege from Ants, Squirrels and Fungus (which may have been the name of a Warren Zevon album).  I also planted and moved an Eastern Red Cedar and a Crabapple Tree from that spot after I decided they each looked better somewhere else.

Our resident Insane Mockingbird decided he like the Eastern Red Cedar so much he planted another one on the opposite side of the front lawn, and it has grown almost as big as the first.

Sargent Crabapple. Successfully transplanted twice, now happily right outside the front door, where you can watch the birds harvest the fruit in the fall.
Sargent Crabapple. Successfully transplanted twice, now happily right outside the front door, where you can watch the birds harvest the fruit in the fall.
We planted two Eastern Red Cedars, including the Famous Leaning Cedar of Duffy's Creek. A Mockingbird planted this one.
We planted two Eastern Red Cedars, including the Famous Leaning Cedar of Duffy’s Creek. A Mockingbird planted this one.

And this leads me to one of my favorite things about this whole 14 year experiment in floral hedonism that we’ve got going on here. Two years ago, I decided I would just fill up the spot in front of the window with flowers. I threw in some zinnias and gladiolas and dahlias and lilies and phlox that I grew from seed. As usual, I spent too much money that could have gone towards fixing the house itself, like say, a roof for instance. And after I do all that, and it all grows in, the most impressive flowers in the whole business are the a deep orange multiflower sunflowers that were planted by my friends the goldfinch.Who are busy eating the seeds of it and pooping them out to make sure they come back next year.

Front Yard Garden - My Patch
Front Yard Garden
Front yard - my patch
Sunflowers courtesy of resident goldfinch

So if you’re walking by our house (And your dog is reading his pee mail) you might notice a nice display of flowers growing outside. And if you knock on the door and ask, we’ll show you round the back. And you’ll say, these people, they seem to have a pretty good life here, and we do. And because we do, we praise God with a thousand flowers every year, because we care, and we’re trying to enjoy our time here on Earth. And we like birds. And it smells good.

And if you’ve got a couple of geraniums in pots on your front step, and you keep them watered, well you’re all right with me.

A creek runs through it, Duffy's Creek starts in Valley Stream State Park, goes through Hendrickson Park, goes under Merrick Road, reappears in the Village Green, ducks under Sunrise Highway, flows through Mill Pond Park where it becomes Mill Pond, goes through a spillway under Mill Road, flows past our about a mile until it goes under Rosedale Road, flows past North Woodmere Park into Jamaica Bay and out into The Atlantic Ocean. During the Hurricane Sandy Surge, the brackish water was up to the top of the post and rail fence.
A creek runs through it:  Duffy’s Creek starts in Valley Stream State Park, goes through Hendrickson Park, goes under Merrick Road, reappears in the Village Green, ducks under Sunrise Highway, flows through Mill Pond Park where it becomes Mill Pond, goes through a spillway under Mill Road, flows past our house and on about a mile until it goes under Rosedale Road, flows past North Woodmere Park into Jamaica Bay and out into The Atlantic Ocean. During the Hurricane Sandy Surge, the brackish water was up to the top of the post and rail fence. Other than that it’s nice in the summer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call that dog Jesus.

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