We knew we’d be going back to see The Dee’s again before Thanksgiving. We just weren’t sure if we’d be going back to see Joey or Tommy.
We hadn’t been inside the gigantic, glass-walled store at Dee’s Nursery after the first frost since the last time we visited Santa Claus as part of our annual Christmas tree hunting and gathering tradition. The inside store is Joey’s domain, although his dad, Tom Sr., the Dee’s patriarch, still hangs out by the registers while we watch the damage we’ve done to ourselves in slow motion. Usually we won’t visit until April, when it’s time to load up Lou the Subaru with bags of tall fescue grass seed, with the topsoil and the peat moss to throw on top of it. Whether it’s Grass Seed Day, or a month later when we start loading up on annuals, veggies and compost, Trisha and I always get a hearty greeting from Joey. Long ago we maxed out on planting trees and shrubs and hybrid tea roses and perennials on our little 60 X 100 plot, so we usually don’t get out to the yard much anymore to see Joey’s older brother Tommy until the Christmas trees show up. But Tommy is always good for a hearty greeting, too. If you were Joey or Tommy, you’d be glad to see us, too.
The Dee’s Nursery is a second-generation family business in Oceanside, Long Island, started in 1958. It was one of my mom’s favorite places to visit in the springtime. Our Christmas Tree hunting and gathering tradition when I was a kid was to go to Garden World in Franklin Square, where they had reindeer you could feed, which is horrible in retrospect, but I suppose my parents and everyone else involved meant well at the time. But Mom loved going to see The Dee’s in the springtime, and taught me to love it, too. For a local, independent business, they have a huge operation, and their selection, quality and service in all things gardening just can’t be beat. Tommy told us one year that he drives a crew up to the family’s own Christmas Tree farm in Franklin, Maine every November. He was very happy and very proud of that, as well as being proud of their annual donation of thousands of Christmas trees shipped to troops serving overseas. And we are always happy and proud to buying one of those trees from this family year after year, comin’ to us straight from Maine.
Every business transaction should be as pleasant.
Unfortunately, we’re in America, so while the The Dee’s are all about service, selection and quality, their prices can be beat quite easily in any season, specifically by the likes of the Home Depot, the presence of which in Rego Park, Queens convinced my late father-in-law to close down his own second-generation nursery business, McCloskey’s Florist, shortly after I joined his family. That was tough to watch.
So we’re willing to pay The Dee’s a couple of extra bucks to support a local business and stay out of the Dante’s Inferno which is the Valley Stream Home Depot parking lot. And in addition to helping support The Dee Boys and their families, we have two other local guys: Ray, whose dad started Alma’s Garden Center on Sunrise Highway in Lynbrook around the time I was born, and Dave, who owns Di Setta Nursery down in Woodmere. A conservative estimate of $50,000 big ones over the course of eighteen years have been split among these three businesses by two slightly touched people who consider growing flowers in the yard to be an unnegotiable necessity.
In years when money was tight, we bought our flowers and our dirt on credit cards, which is quite stupid when considered objectively and I wouldn’t recommend it. But we had to have them. In our defense, we’ve never spent money on lavish vacations and fancy restaurants. So it goes that I may die without seeing Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but damn you should have seen our gardens in June.
I was away from the gardens a lot this year. More so than in any year since we began building them up from nothing in 2002. I spent about eight weeks of elapsed time in 2020 up in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, among the Taconic-Berkshire Mountains that nature built from nothing a couple of million years ago. There are lots of wildflowers and flowering shrubs around Trisha’s Mountain, but nothing we’ve planted, which I suppose could change in time, but as I pointed out in Chapter 5, it would take some intense negotiations with the deer and the bunnies and the groundhogs to get it off the ground.
We never took it for granted for a second this year. It was our incredibly good fortune to have a property up in the country with lots of oxygen, especially in the midst of all the Pandemic misery this year – when just down the road there were people sitting on line in their cars for hours outside Taconic State Park waiting for a chance to just take a walk to Bash Bish Falls, and less fortunate people than those people were dying on hospital beds. We’re only a year into our second home owning adventure as I write this, so the novelty has not even come close to wearing off yet. We’re still just walking around feeling stupid lucky. Knock freaking wood.
So I wasn’t giving the gardens a lot of thought during those eight weeks when I wasn’t in them. They were being watered or rained on and the weeds would wait ‘till I got back. I suppose in my mind I was beginning to move on from them. But that’s how it happens, isn’t it. You think about something until something else comes along that requires bandwidth in your brain, and the thing you were thinking about starts getting crowded out. Sometimes when you look back, you realize that’s kind of a scary process. The more time I spent up n the country this year, getting to know our upstate home, the less I was thinking about the downstate one. Not only can you not be in two places at once, it’s hard to even think of two places at once.
But after all these years, most of the landscaped space on Duffy’s Creek is on autopilot anyway. Most of the trial and error has been done. The losers don’t grow here anymore, and the winners come back stronger every year.
The Big Plan is, of course, to phase out Duffy’s Creek and live full-time on Trisha’s Mountain. When that actually happens remains a question. Back in the Aughts, I noticed on a sign that Copake Town was founded in 1824, so I was thinking I could be up here full time by the time the Copake Bicentennial comes around, maybe even walk down Main Street on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam. I have big dreams.
But that would mean only three more growing season’s on Duffy’s Creek. And that would also mean eventually selling the house, perhaps to someone who rips out all the gardens and replaces them with heavily fertilized grass, or worse, just lets them go to hell, which wouldn’t take long at all.
Once I landed back on Long Island in mid-November of 2020, following my nineteenth trip up and down Route 22 for the year, this time to take delivery of a new industrial-grade humidifier for the basement, I decided to get off the road for a while. I’d been back and forth eight times in thirteen weeks, and the plan (in progress as I write this) was to stay on the creek for six weeks, through Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mookie in particular was exhausted from all the traveling. We needed a break.
But unlike Mookie, I’m not good at doing nothing, no matter how hard or how often I try. I enjoy doing nothing, but after a while I have to do something. I admire people who can keep doing nothing going. I decided that not only was I going to clean up the gardens down to the last fallen leaf, but that this year, since I had the time, I was going to give them all a damn good mulching. And not only that, I was going to power wash the patio so it would already be clean in the spring. I have big dreams.
And I love mulch. I love topsoil and compost, too: The look, the smell, the feel, everything. I suppose I could live without the weight. But still. There’s no more agreeable afternoon activity to me than getting down and dirty in the gardens.
We have seven of them. They all have names. In the front are two semicircle raised beds built with river stone. One is my creation, which starts out as a well-mannered and proper bed of tulips and daffodils in the spring and devolves into an insane tangle of sunflowers and zinnias by July. I call that the Crazy Summer Garden. The opposite semicircle is Trisha’s statelier “Cottage Garden”, highlighted by a giant purple beautyberry bush, chiefly the domain of our resident mockingbird no matter how hard Lyle the Cat stares through the window at him. There’s mock orange and flowering quince around the front, coneflower and bee balm in the middle and creeping purple phlox cascading over the stones. Unlike my garden, somebody had a plan.
On the side of the garage was the tomato and vegetable garden. This year I phased that out and threw in a couple of dahlias which I mostly neglected despite their beauty. I couldn’t keep the damn squirrels away from the tomatoes, and I didn’t want to grow lettuce and broccoli that I wasn’t home to eat or give away. But I still grew cucumbers in another little patch next to the shed this year, way more than I could use, which was good news for a neighbor on the creek who loves cucumber sandwiches. Meanwhile, my 2020 bread and butter pickles were another raging success.
Between our backyard fence and the creek is my Wetland Garden. In one section, I’ve been naturalizing purple and pink native asters for ten years now, and let me tell you, come September, my aster is the most spectacular aster you’ve ever seen. In another section are shrubs that don’t mind drinking crappy brackish water; red twig dogwood, rosa rugosa and winterberry holly, plus a red cedar tree that my brother and I saved from being uprooted after Hurricane Sandy, which is now known as the Leaning Cedar. Most of these plants were, of course, bought from Tommy Dee, many on credit cards. The whole thing is held back from the creek with a bulkhead of logs, wire fencing and dirt that I carted in after ripping out forty years of thug brush eighteen years ago. I had the time of my life.
Along a wooden fence are Trisha’s hybrid tea roses. The roses also stretch into a spot between two houses that we call the Secret Garden. All the roses have cultivar names and stories which she’s told me lots of times because I asked, and she planted many of them in memory of people. Apparently, their preferred pronoun is “she”, as in, “she needs to be cut back.” I can’t keep much of this straight, but I do try really hard. And Trisha works very hard at keeping the hybrid tea roses sprayed with the stuff that keeps them from getting eaten up by little parasites every year. You can get high off the aroma of Trisha’s rose garden in June, and often we do. But one season of neglect and they’d be nothing but angry, thorny green sticks.
Out the back door is my Patio Garden. My parents had a deck when we bought the house. They had it built in the 1970’s, when you were required to build a deck in your suburban backyard under penalty of law. The deck had seen better days by the time we bought it, so we were already planning to rip it out and replace it with a patio when we visited the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass. It was there that I encountered the Herb Associates, a group of volunteers that maintained an herb garden with a patio right outside a kitchen in one of the buildings on the grounds.
I have to admit, my biggest takeaway from this experience was the sheer joy of knowing that there was a group of old ladies from Stockbridge who called themselves the Herb Associates, but I also liked the idea. Eventually, the garden out the back door on Duffy’s Creek became a combination of herbs, perennials and annuals surrounding a loose-laid brick patio that looks like the mason who built it was actually an English teacher on summer vacation.
Around the patio, I have planters where I put the same annuals every year because I know they’ll behave themselves and look great doing it: Geraniums and lantana, both in red, white mandevilla, some years white jasmine if I want to splurge, plus some basil and oregano that I didn’t get around to harvesting this year. Plus I have three highbush blueberries in planters on the patio and four more on the side of the garage, which I’ve used to make some sublime pies over the years, and which us make us very popular with robins.
Since we’ve done all the heavy planting (and transplanting), and the gardens are what they are, most of the work now is adding compost in spring and keeping everything weeded and watered. Invariably, since you only have to get dirty once, I’ll do all the weeding in one shot once every two or three weeks. I can tell which days were weeding days just by looking at my Fitbit history. Any days when I walked 25,000 steps and saw some serious cardio orange and red on my heartbeat chart, those were the days I was out playing in the dirt.
After all these years of pulling weeds, I know every one of them personally, many by name. I can tell you, for instance, that every year I have to pull out deadly nightshade. And every year, deadly nightshade says, “Yeah, OK. Whatever, dude. I’ll be back.” Late in the season, I have to pull out white snakeroot, which can poison milk if cows eat it, and reportedly killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother. Weeding is serious business.
The fall cleanup is actually the biggest job in the gardens now. First is deadheading all the perennials and pulling out the dried-up ghosts of hundreds of zinnias and marigolds and other annuals. Then comes raking out all the leaves and cultivating the soil, then chopping out the last of this year’s weeds. It takes hours and hours and hours. Which is great if, like me, you enjoy this sort of thing, and you happen to have hours and hours and hours.
Any teacher who rides the rhythms of the school year knows that the fall semester is insanely busy. So for all the years I was on that ride, I’d check the Weather Channel app constantly to see what Saturdays and what Sundays would be suitably benign enough to get out and clean up the yard. And knowing how long each section took, I could plan out what I could get done in the time I had. My ultimate goal was to get a bed of cedar mulch down on every garden surface once all the leaves were raked up and the annuals were pulled out and the perennials were cut back and the deadly nightshade and the white snakeroot and all their outlaw buddies were on the brush pile.
I very rarely got anywhere close to that goal. Some years were better than others. Some years I’d still be cleaning out last years’ dead stuff in April. But a couple of years, I got all the mulch down, and it somehow made going to work easier knowing that I did it. This year, with a stretch of freakishly warm weather and a freakish amount of time on my hands, I realized that the attaining the ultimate goal of a damn good full mulching, topped off by a power washing, would somehow make standing around inside the house and looking out the windows all winter a lot easier. I cleaned the gardens until they screamed for mercy and gave them a long overdue mulching.
I usually go for the dyed red cedar mulch, but this year, Dave Di Setta, who keeps his mulch right at the front gate for easy access, only had fifteen bags of red left, and seeing as it takes thirty bags total (and three round trips for Lou the Subaru) I went half red and half plain brown this year.
it’s a beautiful sight and a warm, fuzzy feeling for this OCD sufferer. Not only is it a nice warm blankie for all the plants and enrichment for the soil, it’s also much easier to track what plants are breaking the soil next spring, meaning it’s also harder for the weeds to hide. So in the words of Cosmo Kramer, you’ve got to mulch. You’ve got to.
In the midst of this herculean effort, completed in three-or-four-hour blocks of time over the course of eight nice-weather days, I also put up the Christmas lights, which look delightful and which I absolutely hate doing, and which nobody will actually come to the house to see for themselves. I think I do it for my parents, most of all, and for the memories it conjures up. I have no control over whether any future owners of the property will celebrate Christmas.
Which brings us to the tree. Last December, which was two-thousand years ago, was very exciting for us. We were closing on a house in Copake Falls, a dream we had dreamed for twenty years. The closing was set for the 20th of December, the day the boiler stopped working in the house on what was not yet Trisha’s Mountain, and the closing had to be postponed. Someone flipped the reset switch on the boiler the next day and it’s been working since (knock wood again), and the closing was finally a done deal a week later, on the 27th. We reserved one of our old cabins at Taconic State Park to stay over both times, to avoid nighttime winter driving, which can kill you.
Fortunately, we had the World’s Most Responsible Teenager on the block to take care of the cats on both nights, but this time, she had the added pressure of watering the live Christmas tree next to the radiator in the living room. Leaving a live Christmas tree unattended, even overnight, gave us the willies. I guess I’ve seen one too many videos of blazing Christmas trees infernos. In practical terms, there was very little chance of the Christmas tree burning down the house. They don’t spontaneously combust like the drummers in Spinal Tap. As Bruce Springsteen sang in the worst song he ever wrote, you can’t start a fire without a spark. But if the tree had burned the house down, Lyle the Cat would surely have had something to do with it.
So this year, knowing that we could get up to the Mountain between Christmas and New Year’s, we took a ride to Dee’s to see Joey’s artificial Christmas trees for ourselves inside the store. Our tradition is to put up our tree in the first weekend in December, then take it down the first weekend after New Year’s, by which time some of them over the years have grown a trifle crispy. But neither Trisha nor I, and by extension our offspring and animals, has ever experienced a Christmas without a real Christmas tree. As a kid, I felt pity for people with artificial trees, people who were happy to spend the season looking at a sad, scrawny green plastic scarecrow, usually with boring all-white lights, that looked as much like a tree as a White Castle looks like Versailles, or as a Taco Bell looks like a hacienda. I don’t care what you got for Christmas, or how much fun you had. That’s not really living.
As with many things in my lifetime, though, artificial Christmas tree research and development has grown by leaps and bounds. The ones they make now look very much like trees. They’re pre-lit. You can find one in perfect symmetry to your available space and the initial investment pays for itself in three years of not buying a tree from Tommy’s yard. And you can leave them up as long as you like. John Prine left his up all year long, but he had a bigger house. And there would be no chance of fire by stupidity if we left the tree up on the Creek and drove up to the Mountain, despite Lyle the Cat.
Joey Dee took us through a couple of handsome artificial trees that looked promising and told us he had plenty in stock and more coming in. Nobody was coming to our house over Christmas, so we’d be the only ones who would see it. We’d likely end up getting a fake tree when we move upstate permanently because you really couldn’t put a living tree anywhere near the fireplace, so why not just get used to having a fake tree now? There was only one overriding downside, only one good reason why we didn’t pull the trigger.
We didn’t want to.
I started reading about Zen Buddhism when I was in college. Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki. Those guys. I liked everything about it. In Zen philosophy, the past and the future are illusions. Any wisdom you’ve gained along your path is meant to applied to right now, not to some future day. What’s more, our house and gardens and creek and your house and all your stuff are events, not things, because everything is in a constant, slow-motion state of flux, and nothing is permanent. And since they’re events, not things, they should be celebrated like events, with as much enthusiasm as you work up, because they’re going to end, and we’re going to end, and since that will be the end of that, this right here and this right now are all we’ve got.
But as hard as I’ve tried, I’ve just never been able master the art of living in the Here and Now. I don’t know what’s in anyone else’s brain beyond what they’ve told me, so maybe I’m better at it than I think I am. All I know is that even after years and years of piling up great memories, there are still stupid little moments that I wish I had handled differently rattling around in my head like loose change in a coffee can. And Lord knows I’ve scattered baskets of brain cells across my years worrying about things that theoretically might have happened but never did.
And even when I’ve been as close as I could get to living fully and completely in the Here and Now, and there have been lots and lots of those times, I never went too long without checking my watch. It’s how I’m wired, and that’s just sad, but it’s no excuse. Very often, I enjoyed the hell out of the job I did for 25 years, but I could always tell you exactly how long I had to keep doing it until I didn’t have to.
But if anything could get me to finally shake off all this mental illness, finding myself floating along through the days, collecting my monthly Cash For Life payments from the New York State Teacher’s Retirement System while waiting for a Pandemic to end (and a psychopath to go away) may have been the ticket. I’ve cut off a big chunk of my past and I have no more than a vague plan for the future. Whenever I check my watch, I’m right smack in the middle of the Here and Now.
Self-awareness is one of the benefits of getting old, unless you’re hopeless. It becomes easier to catch yourself when you’re up to your same old lame tricks. Too often this year I’ve found myself sitting on my poorly constructed patio on the creek, thinking about what it would be like to leave Valley Stream and move up to Copake Falls permanently, how I’d feel about letting it all go. Then I’d be up on the Mountain thinking about what it would be like to be there with no back to go to. None of this is anything that I really had to think about at that moment, and any second I that I was, I knew I was only cheating myself out of good time.
And I’ve come to realize that the only reason I’m giving any unthinkworthy thoughts any space in my head at all, instead of enjoying the passage of time, which is of course the secret of life, is because I’m not thinking about my lesson plans for Monday morning, or what to do about that one kid. So all this extra room opens up in my brain, and something has to fill the vacuum. At times in 2020, to my credit, I happily feasted on whatever was in front of my eyes in the Here and Now.
But sometimes I pigged out on boxes of worry cookies and bags of regret chips.
We’re all works in progress. If you’re doing it right.
A moment of personal enlightenment came as it often does, after cleaning. In this case, on the first Sunday of December, when the temperature on Long Island was a sickeningly sweet 70 degrees. I had finished all the mulching and power washed the patio bricks, which takes just as long as cleaning them on your hands and knees with a pencil eraser, then topped off the weekend by cleaning out the garage. The property on Duffy’s Creek looked as good as it ever had on the first Sunday in December.
I was sitting in the yard with my nine-year-old dog, enjoying the fruits of my labor and watching the walkers on the creek path. Looking at how beautiful and how happy he looked, my mind had to find a way to try and ruin it by wandering up an unpleasant stream, as it does too often, to the day when I’d have to let Mookie go.
Then I remembered an excellent cartoon I came across called “Why Dogs Are Better Than People”. The artist drew a man and his dog walking. The man’s think bubble is crowded with dollar signs and buildings and cars and angry looking people and piles of paper. The dog’s think bubble is he and the man walking. I told myself to just stop it already. We’re Here. It’s Now. Nothing matters until it does.
And that was how the Christmas Tree Decision ultimately led us to the Fraiser Firs comin’ to ya straight from Maine via Tommy’s yard. Because we’re Here and it’s Now, and there’s no reason to get a fake tree this year just because we might get one in some distant future Christmas. We made one change in the tradition, and it I think it’ll work out just swell. Instead of waiting until the first weekend in December, we went to Dee’s on the day before Thanksgiving. There was only one other customer in the yard, and most of the trees hadn’t even been unwrapped, but we found this year’s winner within five minutes.
So we’re going to keep Christmas as well as we possible can, and we’re going to try to create a little joy in this miserable time. Then we’re going to take down that perfect Christmas tree the week after Christmas, and we’re going to head up to Copake Falls. Just for good measure when we get there, we’ll put up the little prelit tabletop Christmas tree that was in my father’s room at the nursing home when he woke up to his last Christmas. We’ll have a fire in the fireplace on New Year’s Eve and we won’t burn down either house.
And as another New Year rolls in, I won’t have to see the pictures of people in Taconic State Park enjoying a bonfire after their First Day Hike to Bash Bish Falls and say boy that looks like fun I’d like to get in on that some year because I’ll be there, soaking it in, unconcerned about any other day, past or present.
And by that same logic, I’ll still be pulling deadly nightshade and white snakeroot out of the gardens at Duffy’s Creek until the day we hand somebody else the keys. And if that day happens to be in December, I may just treat them to a damn good mulching before I move on, and before the next event starts.
(With acknowledgement to Antoine de St. Exupery for the help).
My father was a Covid-19 statistic. He died at the age of 90 on April 26th, 2020, at the height of the Pandemic in New York. He suffered from advanced dementia, and the fight left in his body was no match for the virus. As he was living in a skilled nursing facility, none of his children or grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) could be with him to say goodbye. The last time I saw him was on February 16th and I could see even before he was stricken that he had taken a general turn for the worse. Of course, if you tell me that his contacting coronavirus was a blessing in disguise I’m gonna come over there and kick your ass.
Neither he nor my mother, who died in 2012, ever saw Copake Falls. If they had been just a couple of years younger and healthier back in the Early Aughts, maybe they could have come up and stayed at a local B & B and hung out with us at Taconic State Park for a day or two. I sure would’ve liked that. As a matter of fact, it’s a recurring dream that I have every once in a while, and I even like the distorted dream version of them visiting.
They were the ones who first took me upstate after all, and they would have loved the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. They actually kicked the tires on a house way up in Rainbow Lake in the Adirondacks when they retired, but they decided that it was way too much of a hassle to have two houses hundreds of miles apart. They were practical people.
I had a conversation with my father once about moving upstate. We were standing in the backyard on the creek in Valley Stream, the one that used to be theirs and became ours. He had grown up in an apartment in Astoria, Queens, so the 60 x 100 plot was all the room he’d ever hoped to have. He was a city guy.
Of course, since he started me out on the 60 X 100 plot, naturally I wanted something bigger someday. So we were talking in the backyard on the creek that day about how Trisha and I were very happy with buying the house in Valley Stream, but that we always followed the upstate real estate market around the place where we went on vacation every year.
This is how that conversation went:
Me: “… So we keep an eye on the properties for sale. I mean, this is great, but for what you pay on Long Island, you could have a couple of acres of land upstate, and that might be nice someday.”
Dad: (Genuinely perplexed) “What would you do with a couple of acres of land?”
Me: (Slight pause, unprepared for the question) “Stare at it! Walk around on it!”
At which point he responded with his hearty laugh and his million-dollar smile and we moved on.
Around this same time, I started teaching in a school in Ozone Park, Queens where I’d work for the next 16 years. I parked my car outside one morning in September right near where my new assistant principal (who would later become principal) had just gotten out of his parked car. I noticed that he had Vermont license plates. I thought to myself, “well, heck, there’s some pleasant small talk for the walk inside. This guy has a house in Vermont and I’ve been to Vermont. In fact, Copake Falls, where I go every summer, is only about 60 miles from the Vermont border. I’ll ask him about Vermont. Maybe he drives up Route 22 to get there.”
This is how that conversation went:
Me: “Vermont, huh? Beautiful up there. We go to a place near the Berkshires every summer. Copake Falls, New York. Ever hear of it?”
Him (distractedly): “Maybe. I think so… What do you DO there? Do you ski?”
(Narrator: “The Catamount Ski Mountain is one of the big tourist attractions nearby”).
Me: (Again unprepared for the question, and at a complete loss for what to say next) “Not much… Uhhh…We hang out. We watch the birds.”
Him: (long pause). “Hmmm.”
And then we went to work. But (sorry, boss) after I reported this disastrous attempt at friendly conversation to Trisha, it became an inside joke between us. We’d be sitting staring at a campfire or watching the trees swaying in the wind from the front porch of the cabin, and one of us would say to the other, loudly, “What do you DO there?”
Well, now we have a place of our own in Copake Falls. With 1.9 acres of land. And to be honest, when we’re there, we don’t do a damn thing, really. In the words of the great Robert Earl Keen, “I kinda like just doin’ nothin’. It’s somethin’ that I do.”
You might see me taking Mookie Dog for a swim in the brook and a walk on the rail trail in the morning. You might see me and Jack on that same rail trail later on riding the bikes I bought from a guy on Craigslist who I met in the parking lot of the Pittsfield Walmart. You might even see us doing a little tree trimming and minor brush clearing around the yard. You might see me and Trisha watching birds from the front porch. We have campfires. We make dinner. We play ping-pong, pool and darts in the basement. We read and watch stuff. We drive on country roads to re-stock or to look around, then we drive back to the Mountain. Then we stare at it and we walk around on it.
And when weather conditions are favorable, and the Earth’s orbit is aligned correctly, we watch The Show.
The Show, also known as the Trisha’s Mountain Driveway Sunset Festival, is made possible by four elements: The Earth’s rotation around the sun, the topography of the Roe Jan Valley and the surrounding mountains and hills, a road that rises to 800 feet up the side of a 1200-foot rise, and the Shagbark Tree Farm.
It was in 2002 when Trisha and I first stayed in Copake Falls for a full week together. One of my hobbies that week was to learn every road in the area, and how those roads connected to each other. It was so long ago that I did my research with a paper Hagstrom Map of Columbia County that I bought at the AmeriStore gas station. (Today, of course, you could look up our Valley Stream address on Google Earth and see Trisha getting out of her car in the driveway).
Early in this grand pursuit, I found North Mountain Road. The south end of North Mountain starts in the hamlet of Copake Falls off Route 344 and raises you up steadily. The north end takes you for a big twisty up and down ride past some very expensive houses set back on lawns with the square footage of the Pittsfield Walmart. Right in front of these fabulous properties is a small cemetery where the first St. Bridget’s Catholic Church was located. (Upstate New York: Home of the Incongruent Cemetery). The road then twists you sharply downhill and quickly back uphill several times for a roller coaster ride around a dairy farm where they raise Brown Swiss cows (imagine that) before it finally plunges you straight downhill and it spits you out on Route 22 close to the Hillsdale Town Line.
In the middle, when you’re up about as high as you’ll get, there’s a leveling off, and to your west about three or four miles away are hills that are just about equal in elevation to the one you’re on. Between you and those hills is the Roe Jan Valley, which we always refer to as the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, because in 2002 we saw a guy who called himself the Singing Dentist perform a really campy song by that name in the auditorium of Taconic Hills High School and we laughed and we laughed. “I will spend my days / singin’ songs of praise / in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley”. It’s catchy, isn’t it?
The Peaceful Roe Jan Valley is dissected by the meandering Roe Jan Kill, which is short for Roeliff Jansen Kill, which was named for a guy who led a party from New Amsterdam that got stuck in the ice on the Hudson River one chilly day in the 1630’s and stumbled across a tributary that runs 56.2 miles through Dutchess and Columbia Counties. And when the sun hits the valley just right, you can see the reflection of the Roe Jan Kill from North Mountain. It looks like silver mercury in a giant crooked thermometer. I already have a favorite creek, but the Roe Jan is my favorite kill.
Meanwhile, back in the Summers of the Early Aughts, Trisha got used to me taking the better part of an hour to come back from a ride to the IGA in Hillsdale five miles from Taconic State Park because I’d always have to check out another road that I found on the map. North Mountain was a no-brainer, as it led directly off 22 and planted me right in Copake Falls, so it was one of my first detours, if not the first.
I was flat-out flabbergasted by my first glimpse of the million-dollar view I’m going to try to describe here in words, and I should point out that among the mental pictures I took on my first journey was that of a yellow house that looked like an oversized mobile home, but had a little piece of that million-dollar view. How much less than a million dollars for that?
At the point where the hills level off along the top ridge of North Mountain, if you’re traveling south from Hillsdale, you pass a couple of gorgeous properties with ponds on the west side of the road. Past there, and continuing for about three-quarters of a mile, the entire long slope in front of you is part of the 800-acre Shagbark Tree Farm, on land that used to be a dairy farm called Orphan Farm. Here you’ll see seemingly infinite rows of happy little Aspens and Birches and Colorado Blue Spruces patiently awaiting their adulthood in backyards and bank parking lots. And if you look into the distance beyond that slope, where the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley below levels off, you’ll see another piece of the tree farm that runs along Farm Road west of Route 22. As the hills on the other side rise up, the biggest piece of the tree farm looks straight back at you from Overlook Road. Behind that is more hill and behind that in the afternoon is the sun.
And to make it even more fabulous, if you turn around and look north or south, the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley ends right below Copake and right above Hillsdale, so it’s nothing but mountain peaks stretching out to the horizon. Squint your eyes and you can see the faint outlines of Catskill Mountains on the other side of the Hudson.
All of this adds up to some motherf#%&ing beautiful sunsets.
I was a big fan of Bill Geist on CBS Sunday Morning. His thing was reporting little offbeat stories, mostly from small-town America. One of his best was about Sundown Days in Hanlontown, Iowa (now called the Sundown Hoedown), where they tried to promote the town with a festival built around the fact that right around the time of the Summer Solstice, the sun sets directly in the middle of the abandoned Union Pacific railroad tracks that run through town. I was totally charmed by the idea, as I am by every goofy idea (as is Bill Geist, God bless him), and luckily, there was a beautiful sunset that in fact lit up the railroad tracks for the CBS cameras.
The people in Hanlontown admitted they came up with this idea because there wasn’t much else to do. But if you’re watching the sunset, you’re doing something, even if it looks like doing nothing.
Our asphalt driveway on North Mountain Road is not quite straight like a railroad track. It is, however, directly in front of the southern boundary of Orphan Farm. Going south down the road from there towards downtown Copake Falls it’s all private property, with lots of big trees that block a full view of the sunset from the road. But from early spring to early fall we have a front row seat to the sun setting behind the hills to the west, above thousands and thousands of happy little baby trees. And for week or two after the sun lights up the rails in Hanlontown, Iowa, it lights up our driveway in Copake Falls.
Being apparently desperate for attention, I’ve shared a lot of pictures of those sunsets on Facebook. I’ve even apologized for it and flat out admitted that I was just showing off. People keep telling me they like the sunset pictures and they don’t mind seeing them at all. But as I turn The Show into more and more a ritual, because I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and it’s what I do, I’m trying to turn it into more of a meditative thing, like a Japanese Tea Ceremony. And if you want to meditate successfully, it’s always a good idea to unplug yourself from that stupid phone and walk away from it.
From the website kcbinternational.com:
In ancient times, Buddhist monks designed the tea ceremony to directly work to affect all five senses, to wake up the person both physically and spiritually. The double nature of the ritual works in such a way that it brings a deep inner peace and tranquility by bringing the mind and body together.
Of course, sometimes I’ll bring the camp chair down to the driveway and the sunset will be so gorgeous I will not be able to fight off the impulse to run back up to the house and get the stupid phone and take a bunch of pictures. I’ve done videos, time-lapse, panorama, crazy photo edits, and portrait mode. I’m weak of will.
In my mind, Buddhist monks shake their heads and softly say to me, “you’re freaking hopeless, dude.”
But I’m trying.
And though I know you’re not supposed to think about anything but the Here and the Now when you’re trying to achieve enlightenment, down on the driveway watching the sunset, I’ve gained a little self-knowledge (and not-self-knowledge) from thinking about the little prince.
The 2019-2020 school year was already going to be my last as a middle school English teacher. Knowing that I was eligible for a full pension at the end of 25 years, I pretty much decided in September of 2019, while staring forlornly at the long line of red break lights stretching in front of me and Lou the Subaru on the Belt Parkway at 6:08 am, that I was done.
Oh, and by the way: When people tell you about teachers spending all those hours of their own time doing prep work, communicating with parents and grading papers, when they tell you how much of their own money teachers spend on supplies, when they tell you how many obstacles are thrown in the way of doing the job effectively, they’re telling you the truth.
And all that stuff about it being a rewarding career? That’s all true, too. I met more great people and saw more of the good in humanity close-up in 25 years than many people ever will. You’ll have to trust me on that one. That was my reward for a workday that was like being hit in the head repeatedly with a two-by-four. But I got to live deeply as heck for 25 years. It was exhausting, but I don’t regret it, and I’m glad I took over the family business from my Mom. I might start tutoring at some point, but as for juggling 90 eighth graders for 185 days a year, twenty-five trips around the sun was plenty.
My last day in a school with kids in it was supposed to be June 26th, 2020. Instead it was March 13th. For many of those 106 days, it was my job to keep the kids going with “virtual lessons” on Google Classroom. However, acknowledging that many teachers had to keep their own kids going through remote learning, the periods were shortened from 42 to 25 minutes. There’s really not a whole lot you can accomplish as a teacher in 25 minutes. That’s where pdf’s come in.
We finished the novel we had been reading in class before Trump broke the country, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, which I loved teaching because through of a funny and charming coming-of-age story set on Long Island, the kids got to learn what a mess everything was in 1968, and why it’s still a mess. That took about three weeks. Then what? Well, for my next trick, I was planning on breaking out Steinbeck’s The Pearl to teach the young ones to avoid greediness and how to spot unrepentant assholes, and lo and behold, there it was in public domain on pdf’s all over the place. Mission accomplished. However, my ingenious plan, breaking the book down into 15-minute bites with questions meant to promote critical thinking, ‘cause that’s how I rolled, gave me three more weeks to fill up after Memorial Day.
What to do, what to do. It was totally on me. And even if it weren’t, who was going to stop me from doing whatever I wanted? It had to be something relatively short and simple, that was old enough to be ripe for stealing from a pdf. file. Ideally, something good. The kids had suffered for the incompetence of their leaders. Some of them never saw the light of day for the three and a half months that I was in contact with them online.
One of them lost his father just like I did, except his father was younger than me, probably a lot younger, and he also lost 45 years with his father that I got with mine, so it wasn’t like I did at all. I was communicating electronically every workday with 13-year-olds in the epicenter of a Pandemic. Just writing that sentence feels surreal. There was misery and anger and confusion and sadness all over the place, and I know Duffy’s Google Classroom was a bright spot for many of them. There was something there to think about, and somebody thanked them for thinking. I had to go out with a bang, even if I was sitting on my couch with a laptop computer. I needed a book that could help them think about sadness and loss, about love and friendship, about hypocrisy and human folly, about seeing with your heart.
There’s only one book in the world like that. And I’m happy to report that it was a smash hit on Google Classroom.
Here’s The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery in short with too much left out:
A pilot has crashed his plane and is stranded in the desert. He meets a tiny little prince from the Asteroid B-612, who has come to Earth after a long journey through the universe, a journey he took because the love he felt for a single flower was too much for him to bear. The little prince recounts his journey through different planets to the pilot, telling of his conversations with, among others, a king, a man who has nothing but believes he is rich, a drunken fool, a lamplighter, a cartographer, and a train switchman. They each allow him insight into some paradox of human behavior. On Earth, he meets a fox, who teaches him true wisdom, which he then imparts to the pilot. When the little prince leaves the pilot (I’m not telling you how) he promises that pilot will be able to see him in the night sky.
And if you’ve read The Little Prince, you’ve already figured out what this all has to do with sunsets. This is from chapter 6:
Oh, little prince! Bit by bit I came to understand the secrets of your sad little life… For a long time you had found your only entertainment in the quiet pleasure of looking at the sunset. I learned that new detail on the morning of the fourth day, when you said to me:
“I am very fond of sunsets. Come, let us go look at a sunset now.” “But we must wait,” I said. “Wait? For what?” “For the sunset. We must wait until it is time.”
At first you seemed to be very much surprised. And then you laughed to yourself. You said to me:
“I am always thinking that I am at home!”
Just so. Everybody knows that when it is noon in the United States the sun is setting over France.
If you could fly to France in one minute, you could go straight into the sunset, right from noon. Unfortunately, France is too far away for that. But on your tiny planet, my little prince, all you need do is move your chair a few steps. You can see the day end and the twilight falling whenever you like…
“One day,” you said to me, “I saw the sunset forty−four times!” And a little later you added: “You know−− one loves the sunset, when one is so sad…” “Were you so sad, then?” I asked, “on the day of the forty−four sunsets?” But the little prince made no reply.
In Chapter 10, on the first stop of his journey, the little prince meets a king who lives alone on a planet with no subjects. The king tells the prince that he has absolute authority over everything. The little prince is intrigued by this notion, and so asks the king if he can command a sunset, since he is feeling homesick and hasn’t seen one since he left Asteroid B-612.
Such power was a thing for the little prince to marvel at. If he had been master of such complete authority, he would have been able to watch the sunset, not forty−four times in one day, but seventy−two, or even a hundred, or even two hundred times, without ever having to move his chair. And because he felt a bit sad as he remembered his little planet which he had forsaken, he plucked up his courage to ask the king a favor:
“I should like to see a sunset… do me that kindness… Order the sun to set…”
“If I ordered a general to fly from one flower to another like a butterfly, or to write a tragic drama, or to change himself into a sea bird, and if the general did not carry out the order that he had received, which one of us would be in the wrong?” the king demanded. “The general, or myself?”
“You,” said the little prince firmly.
“Exactly. One much require from each one the duty which each one can perform,” the king went on. “Accepted authority rests first of all on reason. If you ordered your people to go and throw themselves into the sea, they would rise up in revolution. I have the right to require obedience because my orders are reasonable.”
“Then my sunset?” the little prince reminded him: for he never forgot a question once he had asked it.
“You shall have your sunset. I shall command it. But, according to my science of government, I shall wait until conditions are favorable.”
“When will that be?” inquired the little prince.
“Hum! Hum!” replied the king; and before saying anything else he consulted a bulky almanac. “Hum! Hum! That will be about−− about−− that will be this evening about twenty minutes to eight. And you will see how well I am obeyed.”
Just as the king commands, twenty minutes to eight is about what time The Show starts in Copake Falls, during the weeks when the Trisha’s Mountain Driveway Sunset Festival is in full swing. It’s completely reasonable. We carry the camp chairs down to the end of the driveway and we sit there, like we’re at the Village Green Bandshell in Valley Stream and The Nassau Pops are coming out to perform. Sometimes we shoot the breeze while we watch the show, and sometimes we start getting silly and laughing ‘cause we do that. Sometimes we point phones at it. But other times we sit there and stare, and we think our own thoughts.
And as all sunset fans know, it’s different every time. Sometimes fluffy cumulous clouds glow like they’re being heated on a stove when the sun sets beneath them. Sometimes there’s a little break in a blanket of cloud cover so that the sun suddenly appears right before it sets behind the mountains and throws a ribbon of orange and red straight across the ridge. Sometimes cirrus clouds splash streaks of peach and mustard and cherry red against the darkening blue like brushstrokes from an abstract painter, and sometimes giant stratocumulus dragons and bunnies change colors as they float by. You never know what you’ll see, so it’s always worth watching.
So shortly after the day of my final sign-off on Google Classroom, I was up on The Mountain, sitting in a camp chair next to Trisha in an illuminated asphalt driveway as the clouds and the sun and the tree farm and the hills performed another new, never-seen-before version of The Show and I was thinking about the little prince.
“You know, one loves the sunset – when one is so sad…”
There’s something intrinsically sad about a sunset. It’s the end of another day of one’s life. It’s the last gasp of light before total darkness sets in. So even if one is sitting happy as a clam watching a spectacular sunset, one is bound to feel a little bit of melancholy. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that we’ll all be dead someday.
But besides feeling sad for the state of the world right now, and sad about all the grief in the collective consciousness, and all the unnecessary suffering that has been inflicted by greed and stupidity, and of course sad about the death of my father in the middle of all this, I realized I was also feeling a little sad watching the sunset that evening because there are flowers back on the creek that have tamed us, and Trisha and I are responsible for them.
Our backyard in Valley Stream faces west, and the sunsets there are no slouches. If they were the sunsets we watched for the rest of our lives, we’d die lucky. But nothing compares to the big sky over Copake Falls. It almost feels like we’re cheating on our house. But we’ve allowed ourselves to be tamed by this 1.9-acre plot of land on a hill overlooking a tree farm, and since the day we first stepped foot on it, nothing has been the same. And sometimes it feels like the future is coming at me too quickly.
The little prince loved a rose that grew on Asteroid B-612. Being the only rose there, he thought she was unique in all the world. But his rose was very vain and very demanding, and she was breaking his heart, which is why he decided to tidy up his volcanoes, pull up the weeds to stop the baobab trees from taking over and go out into the universe to find wisdom. Later, while exploring Earth, he comes across a garden of roses, and realizes that his rose is not unique, which makes him cry.
He next meets the fox, who wants the little prince to tame him, but the Little Prince doesn’t understand the concept, so the fox explains:
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox,” It means to establish ties.”
“‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
The fox goes on to explain the process of taming:
It will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain−fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back to the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”
So at the fox’s insistence, the little prince tames him. Part of the process is to establish rites. The little prince has to show up at the same hour as he did the day before so the fox can look forward to that hour. Soon, the fox has been tamed. But the little prince, who never wanted to tame the fox in the first place, feels like he has to move on.
“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.
“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.
“Then it has done you no good at all!”
“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”
“Go and look again at the roses. You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world. Then come back to say goodbye to me, and I will make you a present of a secret.”
The little prince comes to realize that the rose he left behind on Asteroid B-612 is unique from the other roses because it has tamed him. And he tells the other roses just that:
“But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.
And he went back to meet the fox.
“Goodbye,” he said.
“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
“It is the time I have wasted for my rose−−” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.
“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”
“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
The House on the Creek tamed me as a little boy, then it tamed me all over again when our son was a little boy. I know every single flower and weed that grows on that 60 x 100 plot of land. I have spent thousands and thousands of hours taking care of it.
There’s a wisteria bush that grows in the corner of the yard next to a large and beautifully crooked maple tree that leans out towards the creek. Both of these plants were there before my parents were. If not for our regular intervention, the wisteria vines would have swallowed up the maple tree long ago. Someday we’re not going to be there and there will be nothing we can do about it, but on some level, we’ll still feel responsible for it.
Over almost twenty years on the Creek, Trisha and I have planted over a hundred perennials, roses shrubs and trees. We’ve grown thousands of flowers and fallen in love with every single one of them. We made a place surrounded by too much ugly into something uniquely beautiful. We tamed it and it tamed us. Though the siren call of Copake Falls was always calling, we made a little paradise in Valley Stream.
But the first time we drove up that asphalt driveway on North Mountain Road, we both knew we were going to be tamed all over again. The sweep of grass that slopes upwards to a trail through the woods in the backyard, the solitary mountain standing watch over the cornfield next door, the way the house itself nestles into the hill like a giant stick of butter on a plate, the big old trees that needed a little help from the vines trying to eat them, the leaves of the tall cottonwoods dancing in the breeze along the driveway, and those sunsets over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley.
The little prince points out that on Earth “Men set out on their way in express trains, but they do not know what they are looking for. Then they rush about, and get excited, and turn round and round...” And not only that, they “raise five thousand roses in the same garden−− and they do not find in it what they are looking for.”
That’s us all right. All the years we spent building a little Eden in Valley Stream surrounded by crowds and noise and litter, we kept looking for our place in Copake Falls, and just like when the little prince and the pilot go in search of a well in the desert, we just kept going until it found us. And when we did, it was as if it had been waiting to be found, waiting to be tamed, and waiting to tame us.
The first time we walked up the hill in the backyard, I said to Trisha that this was a canvas that we could paint something brand new on, something that started with us. She was always more than cool about making a home and a family in a place where I had already been part of one, instead of us building from the ground up together. Now this was her turn. Trisha’s Mountain. But after twenty years and a thousand roses, she’s just as tamed by the creek as I am. To let go of it completely is, to quote one of her favorite expressions, something I can’t get my head around right now.
Monsieur St. Exupery said it best: “One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed…”
When it comes time to say goodbye to Valley Stream, to say goodbye to the place where I was a little boy and where we raised a little boy, time to say goodbye to that physical connection to my parents, it just ain’t gonna be easy.
But the fox reminds the little prince that, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
So when I’m doing nothing on Trisha’s Mountain, sitting and staring or walking around, I may not be able to meditate like a Buddhist Monk, but I’m trying like hell to stay in the here and the now, to see with my heart, everything essential that happens to be right in front of me, and everything essential that I love that can’t be right in front of me. It’s all there if I see rightly.
When it’s time for little prince to leave the pilot, on the one-year anniversary of his descent to Earth, he comforts the pilot by telling him to look up at the stars.
“And at night you will look up at the stars. Where I live everything is so small that I cannot show you where my star is to be found. It is better, like that. My star will just be one of the stars, for you. And so you will love to watch all the stars in the heavens… they will all be your friends. And, besides, I am going to make you a present…”
He laughed again. “Ah, little prince, dear little prince! I love to hear that laughter!” “That is my present. Just that. It will be as it was when we drank the water…”
“What are you trying to say?”
“All men have the stars,” he answered, “but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all these stars are silent. You−− you alone−− will have the stars as no one else has them−−”
“What are you trying to say?”
“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… you−− only you−− will have stars that can laugh!”
And he laughed again.
“And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure… and your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’ And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you…”
And he laughed again.
“It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh…”
There isn’t much room for the stars in our neighborhood on light-polluted Long Island. There’s no limit to the stars on our hill in Copake Falls. After The Show fades to dark red and then to black, you can move the camp chair to the wide-open hill in the backyard and take them all in. And of course, the longer you look, the more stars you see.
The little prince is up there. You know that. But then there’s all the people whose time in my life has passed like another day’s sunset. Some of those little stars up there are all the thousands of kids and thousands of grown-ups I met in 25 years as Mr. Duffy the Schoolteacher. Some of them are people I met before those 25 years even started, people from my neighborhood, people from school, people I met while working at the supermarket, driving a cab, working at a magazine and a newspaper, going to college, going out to bars and clubs, going on an Outward Bound expedition when I was 16, going to Camp Lavigerie in the Adirondacks every summer and every other thing I ever did.
Some of those stars are friends and family who I haven’t seen in too long because of this Pandemic, and I hope every one of them of them can come here and sit down on this hill someday. But in the meantime, they’re out there. So I’ll think of them and hope they’re doing well and I’ll pick each one out a star for the time being.
But the brightest stars up there, some of whom are planets following the path of the sun?
Those are my parents, and Trisha’s parents, finally getting to visit, and to share in all this beauty that has tamed us. Those are the stars that guide our way into the future.
Because someday, when we cross the Whitestone Bridge with nothing left to go back to on the other side, the sun will go on rising and setting, and we’ll have a front row seat to a beautiful sunset every night there is one. Over time our sorrows about leaving Long Island will start to be soothed. And some of those stars on that hill at night will be all the flowers we grew on a little 60 X 100 plot of land along a creek in Valley Stream.
And we can say it’s what we did there. And we can say it was something.
Copyright 2020 by John Duffy
Fair use (hopefully) of excerpts and illustrations from The Little Prince, which was written in 1943 but renewed in 1971, copyrighted by the widow of Antoine de St. Exupery.
Here’s where it starts: At the very end of 2019, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the week when nobody does much of anything, my wife Trisha and I did something complicated, extravagant and totally unnecessary. We bought a house.
Everyone with whom we shared this news was ecstatically happy for us. Nobody called us stupid. Not to our faces.
I suppose if somebody had a problem with us buying this particular house, the problem would be that we already own a house, and the majority of people on Earth don’t own a house, and many don’t have a home, and now we have two. From that perspective, of course it’s clear that we didn’t have any damn business buying another house.
But we bought it anyway. We had our reasons. We think some of them are almost valid, but I’ll leave that to you. If you’re a capitalist, maybe you’ll say we’re smart people and we know what we’re doing and it’s not a problem at all so go ahead and enjoy it. If you’re a Marxist, you’ll likely call us out for the selfish pigs that we are. Fortunately for us, there are way more capitalists than there are Marxists, at least in our circle.
Trisha and I bought my parents’ house eighteen years ago in Valley Stream, Long Island, New York. It’s a little 1,300 square-foot cape cod-style house on a 60 x 100 plot of land. It’s cute. You’d like it. We grow a lot of flowers. The backyard overlooks a pretty little winding creek, the official name of which is actually “Valley Stream”, but people who don’t know me usually either call it Hook Creek or Mill Brook.
People who do know me call it Duffy’s Creek. Some, anyway. Because I asked them to. My parents bought the house in 1955, and I grew up there, the “baby” in a family of five kids. I never went very far, never changed my mailing address. I got married, came back, entered into a real estate transaction, had a son of my own, and began growing old right on that creek. The tide comes in and out from Jamaica Bay, and by the grace of God, I go right on living. It’s a nice story so far, isn’t it?
But here’s the thing: Three weeks after Trisha and I met on the boardwalk by the ocean in Long Beach, Long Island in 1999, we spent a perfect early-November weekend staying in a cabin in Taconic State Park at Copake Falls, in Columbia County, New York, a place we had both discovered independently, she from going to the annual Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in nearby Hillsdale, me from years when I would periodically get in my car and drive long distances because I didn’t have anybody to go to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival with. We lit a campfire on a crackling cold and clear Friday night full of stars, and on Saturday morning we hiked to Bash Bish Falls under Indian summer skies full of crazy blue jays hopping through orange and yellow trees yelling, “Stay! Stay! Live Here!” We fell in love with each other and we fell in love with the place. And for the ensuing twenty years, we returned there every summer and a couple of falls, probably logging about six months of elapsed time. Our son Jack has never known a year that didn’t include at least one week in Copake Falls.
“It’s like our second home,” we’d say.
But that wasn’t true. It just sounded nice.
So our home away from home stayed up there on the map and up there in our minds year after year as we continued to grind it out on Long Island. The sound of the blue jays and the turns in the country roads stood behind us, tapping on our shoulders to remind us what we were missing; the ancient mountains, the cleaner air, the bigger trees, the wide open roads, the farm stores and the church barbecues, the people who wave when they drive by, the absence of malls and chain stores (except for the Stewart Shop up in Hillsdale, which is perfect and cannot be criticized). I wasted hours and hours of my precious time here on Earth scrolling though Zillow listings.
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Copake Falls was an alternative reality. And as Valley Stream continued to get louder and louder year after year, summer after summer Copake Falls stayed mellow.
Valley Stream is a lot of things. Many of them are good. But “mellow” is not one of those things. A quick check for “antonyms of mellow” on Merriam Webster reveals “discordant, dissonant, grating, harsh, inharmonious, jarring, strident, unmelodious and unmusical.” I guess it would be harsh, maybe even unmelodious, to describe my hometown in these terms. But still, it sure as hell is not mellow, except in our backyard, and then only when our surrounding neighbors aren’t shooting fireworks or holding dance competitions. And if you want to see jarring and strident, live near a mall on Long Island during those seasons when people get in their cars every half hour to go buy more stuff. If grating and harsh is more what you’re after, listen to a Long Islander who has been inconvenienced.
Robert Frost came up with the line, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” It was such a good line that he requested it as the epitaph on his gravestone. As you might guess, Jean-Paul Sartre doesn’t have an epitaph on his gravestone (cool issues and all), but he sure could have gone with one of his best lines: “Hell is other people.”
People are what make a place more than anything. Or break it. There are rural parts of America and suburban parts of Long Island where I’m not too arrogant to say I wouldn’t be caught dead. People who are proud of where they live, wherever they might be, like to come up with slogans to promote their hometowns as places that other people might like to see, possibly even live in, because people spend money, and that’s what keeps places alive. Valley Stream once sold itself as “The Gateway to Suburbia”. Kind of a Dante’s Inferno thing really, but I suppose it was meant as a compliment at the time. The Town of Copake sells itself to this day as “The Land of Rural Charm.” That’s a good one, huh? I hope whoever thought of that at a meeting got the praise and recognition that they earned. But I could show you lots of uncharming rural places around town if I had to. And tell you about some less than charming rural people.
So In fairness to my fellow Long Islanders (and – whether they like it or not – my now-fellow Copakeans), let’s start with the premise that the vast majority of people everywhere, in every place with a name, are really all right. I truly do believe this. But sadly, as you know, while most people are wonderful, some people just suck. So it follows that if there are more people, more people will just suck. That being established, here are what I believe are the four basic groups of problem humans:
1. The Slightly to Extremely Dangerous: Those who have had hard lives or some sort of trauma and have decided than instead of nobility or faith, they will instead make it a point to project their hurt and anger on convenient targets they find around them. While this group of people have to be treated like walking landmines, as a child of God, one can’t judge them if one is not one of them and hopes not to be. I just try to stay out of their way and not to make things any worse for them.
2. The Insufferably Annoying: Those who have been sadly brainwashed by too much TV into thinking they are the star of their own little reality show, and thereby have developed a need to create drama and tension where none should exist in order to compensate for an otherwise tedious existence. Long Island is saturated with people like this, possibly because of its wealth. If your main problems are not the procurement of food, clothing and shelter, you really have no problems, so if you want some, you have to invent them. Ideally, it would help every one of them to be slapped silly, but violence is never an option.
3. The Head-Scratchingly Frustrating: Those who, for a variety of reasons, from deeply neurological to not getting hugged enough as babies, just can’t grasp the simple rules of getting along. They’re not particularly dangerous or overly dramatic. They just flat out boggle the mind. Ask anyone who’s ever worked in retail. But, as my father would have said, you can’t make their problem your problem. You can suffer fools gladly or ungladly. You’re still going to suffer fools.
Now, If you give people in these three categories the benefit of the doubt, and assume that in their essence they really just can’t help themselves, and they probably have many good qualities as well, that leaves us to grapple with the problems perpetuated and the damage done by Group #4, The Unrepentant Assholes: Those who live to purposefully and gleefully gain negative attention from the rest of us by being as unpleasant, uncooperative and self-centered as they can possibly be.
My personal sampling of the several hundred-thousand people I’ve interacted with in 57 years suggests that groups 1, 2 and 3 represent between 7% and 10% of the overall population. Maybe as much as 15% in higher-end neighborhoods. The Unrepentant Assholes in Group 4 are actually a very, very small percentage of the human population. I asked Trisha, and she said 2%. I was thinking three, but I’ll go with her answer.
There are 284.7 square miles of land in Nassau County, New York, and approximately 1,359,700 people call it home, making for a population density of 4,787 people per square mile, with all the people noise and chaos they generate. Bear in mind that there are large swatches of Nassau County where billionaires have reserved lots of land for themselves and their horses and their golf courses, leaving the rest of us to fight over what’s left. The population density of South Valley Stream is 7,583 people per square mile.
Traveling from Nassau County to Columbia County, you’ll pass Co-Op City in the Bronx, which has a population density of 47,000 per square mile. So really, I should just shut up. I’m very much aware of this. But we’re born where we’re born, for reasons that are seemingly random and certainly not fair, and we know what we know. I would like to build a little house with a garden for every family in Co-Op City on all the land currently being used for golf courses. I have no beef with horse farms.
Meanwhile, In Columbia County, there are 635 square miles of land, which is home to 59,461 people, which is 93 people per square mile. This includes Hudson, the county seat, which is two square miles and has 6,144 people, 1238 of whom sell antiques. Extrapolate that funky little metropolis, and now we’re down to 84 people per square mile, and 2% of 84 is 1.68.
This all means that in every square mile of land in Nassau County, you will find 94 Unrepentant Assholes (150 in South Valley Stream, most of them driving). Whereas in Columbia County you might find two. Plus you can factor in the variable that being known as having manners and not being a big fat pain in the ass is much more important in Columbia County, because you don’t want everyone else to agree that you’re that one person in their square mile, whereas in Nassau County, every asshole is competing for attention against 93 other assholes within one square mile, and it’s hard to keep track of them all.
There is no cure for any of this. Not in this life, man. More people create more stress. As the Pandemic of 2020 set in, I started seeing clickbait on my rectangle about how people would start moving from the city up into the Hudson Valley “in droves”. Since it’s an issue that affects my life, I was interested to know how many a drove is and how many droves you could multiply that by, but I try not to fall for clickbait. And the proliferation of people in Groups 1, 2 and 3 will only get worse as cell phones get better. And more Group 4’s means more chances of something unpleasant happening to you or around you every time you leave the house.
So the choice for us seems to have become one of either standing in the Gateway to Suburbia as the Barbarians continue to storm through, or goin’ to the country and buildin’ us a home in The Land of Rural Charm, hoping that agricultural zoning regulations will keep the droves at bay for a while.
And that’s why at the end of the twenty-first year of complaining about the miseries that follow the overpopulation of Long Island, and of idealizing the alternative existence of Columbia County, Trisha and I bought a second home two and a half hours away from our first one, a mellow-yellow ranch house on 1.9 acres of land bordering the very state park where we had once walked around all gooey in love under the autumn sun with the blue jays and everything so many years before. Since I had named the creek in back of our house in Valley Stream after myself, because who could stop me, and since the funds that made this real estate transaction possible were bequeathed through my wife’s family, I insisted that we call our new second home, perched on a ridge 840 feet above sea level, “Trisha’s Mountain”.
We had a dream. We had the money. We jumped off the cliff. And then the whole country broke. And then I quit my job.
Not really, but sort of. I actually retired from 25 years as a middle school English teacher. It’s an important job, and somebody has to do it, but it is no longer me. However, the pension I earned is a lot less than if I had stuck around and made more money for a couple of more years, thereby assuring that eventually, if I wanted to live in the style to which I’ve become accustomed, house in the country and all that, I’d have to suck it up and find a part-time job. So, I gave myself four months to decompress, while the Covid-19 Pandemic and the complete collapse of American Society that will likely precede or follow the Presidential Election of 2020 play themselves out.
In the meantime, in between traveling up and down State Route 22, I thought I’d write a book. But I didn’t know what to write about. I had some ideas, but I don’t like it when people are angry at me, so I had to keep thinking of other ones.
The whole “we left the crowd in the city and moved to the country but we didn’t know the cows next door would smell so bad and why are there bees and snakes” thing has been done to death. That’s not what I’m after here. There isn’t a whole lot of Upstate / Downstate culture shock for me to write about because I pretended that I had a house in the country for twenty years before I actually had one. And nobody up there has to explain to us how not to be “citiots.” We get along just fine with everyone. Not much material there. Of course, In order to be considered a local in Copake, your family has to have lived there for two-hundred years, so we know we’ll always be outsiders. We try to counter that by being polite.
So ultimately I decided to write a book of stories and word pictures, twenty of which are set in Columbia County, the other twenty in Nassau County.
My only claim to originality is that I write from the perspective of one whose heart truly lives in two places at the same time, and who knows his time in the one place, the place that created him, is likely winding down.
A Little Side Note: Right now, if you’re reading this book in its competed form, and not in installments on duffyscreek.com, you’ve established that 20 plus 20 equals 40 and not 41. Very astute. Chapter 1, the longest one in the book, is mostly about New York Route 22, the road in between (and how I found it). As we’re making this several years long transition, the road from here to there and back has become sort of my third home.
Valley Stream and Copake Falls, while they are almost united by a common language, and while you can drive from one to the other in two and a half hours, and while by virtue of boundaries drawn up 400 years ago are both in New York State, could not be less alike. But this book is not about comparing and contrasting them. It’s about things that define these places for me. They are both home now. When I’m in one place, I feel the other one trying to pull me back. Neither of them seems to understand that I can’t be in two places at once.
I have become a human wishbone.
I grew up in Valley Stream (and by extension, Long Island) in days when it wasn’t quite as strident and jarring. As another one of my heroes, Mose Allison, said of Tippo, Mississippi, “I am of that place, and the stamp is upon me.” But the little hamlet of Copake Falls has been yanking at the sleeve of my soul for most of my adult life, and now our plan is to go there for good someday.
But not today.
I guess you could say we have a plan. But we don’t, really. Our right-now-16-year-old son has two more years of high school and likes it upstate just as much as we do. So he would be more or less on board if we actually had a plan. Trisha is very successful at her mommy-takes-the-train-to-the-city job, so she’s not in a hurry to leave (as we’d be broke, and she’s in charge of the money) but I know Long Island’s obnoxiousness gets to her even more than it gets to me. And as I write this in the summer of 2020, you can’t even go sit on the beach unless you want to risk getting horribly sick (or getting somebody else horribly sick), and Long Island is pretty much pointless without the beach and the ocean. It seems predetermined which way the wishbone will eventually snap, and I guess if there is a plan, that’s the plan.
Abraham Lincoln said that the best thing about the future is that it happens one day at a time. I’ve outlived him by a year, so I’m happy to be here at all.
And as people suffer all over the world, my main purpose in life in August of 2020 is waiting for people to call me to schedule delivery of some comfy furniture.
I never thought it would come to this.
Of course, If we decided to put our house in Valley Stream on the market tomorrow morning, it would take the better part of two years to shovel out of it anyway. So for the foreseeable future, part of me is watching the tide come and go on the creek and part of me is watching the light dance across the mountains. I am a stupidly lucky son of a gun and I have not a thing in this world to complain about, but if you’re nice enough to read on anyway, I’ll try not to be boring.
When a friend at work would complain to me, he’d often say, indignantly, “this is not what I signed up for!” Well, this is exactly what I signed up for that mellow December day last year in the lawyer’s office in Millerton.
I am a human wishbone. I am Gumby, damn it. With one arm and one leg stretched north, the other arm and leg stretched south.
Which would put my center somewhere around the Red Rooster.
Francis James Duffy died early on the grey and rainy morning of Sunday April 26, 2020. He was a great guy to have as a friend, an even greater guy to have as my father.
As of two days ago, he was one of 120,000 people who have died as a result of the Covid-19 Coronavirus in The United States of America, 446,000 on Planet Earth. As you probably know, Long Island suffered unbelievable losses. Over 4,000 people have died from the virus in Nassau and Suffolk Counties alone. I feel like I’ve heard more ambulance sirens this year than in my previous fifty-six combined. For weeks in April into May, every morning brought three or four more pages of people, particularly grandpas and grandmas, ripped from the living, smiling above their names and the sad news of their departures in the Newsday Obituaries.
He was one of them.
Today is Sunday June 21st, 2020. The first full day of summer. Father’s Day. Francis has been gone eight weeks. Born at the start of the Summer of 1929, he would have been 91 years old tomorrow, June the 22nd.
Which means that this morning, in an alternate reality that didn’t include a worldwide pandemic, Trisha, Jack, Mookie Dog and I would have driven an hour and fifteen minutes east from the house my parents bought in 1955 (and sold to us in 2002) to the Jefferson’s Ferry Life Care Community in South Setauket, where they moved 19 years ago.
He would have been asleep in his wheelchair when we got there, and while he would eventually come around to the notion that he had visitors, he wouldn’t know who we were. But he’d like that we’d brought a dog. We would have wheeled him from the Memory Unit, down the long hallway, past the rooms of those he used to call “the inmates”, then out to the patio with the high maples and the oaks and the rock garden with the recirculating waterfall and the upscale outdoor furniture with the oversized umbrellas, the red corduroy chair cushions and the cool summer breeze.
And there we would have sat with him and there we would have tried as we always did to communicate with him through the darkened synapses of his advanced dementia. If we’d been lucky, he might have opened his eyes once or twice, and maybe light them up with his smile, a smile like no other. And more than likely, Mookie would have made that happen.
After his wife of 60 years died in August of 2012. I visited my father once a month. Usually it would be just Mookie and me, back out on the road at the crack of dawn on a Saturday Morning. It was exactly a 50-mile trip. We’d zip out before the Long Island traffic, east on Sunrise Highway, north on the Seaford Oyster Bay Expressway, east again on the Long Island Expressway to exit 62 , up Nichols Road to Northern Boulevard to Shep Jones lane, where we’d park in the Nature Conservancy parking lot for a hike through High Farms and up into Avalon Woods in Stony Brook. Then, fully born again, we’d head back down Nichols Road to 347 to Wireless Road to go see Grandpa. For me it was sort of like going to church and getting to physically kiss Jesus on the top of his head at the end of the mass.
Mookie made lots of friends over the years at Jefferson’s Ferry, and as far as we’re concerned, he was a working therapy dog when he was there. Now I don’t have the heart to tell him we’re never going back. Being a dog, He never stops hoping. And I don’t know about him, because, again, he’s a dog and he can’t tell me, but I assume he also holds those mornings with his grandpa as preciously in his Labrador heart as I hold them in my human one. Being the only one of us (I can only assume) who was aware that every one of those monthly visits might be the last one, I tried to stay in the moment as we three sat together, even as the man whom my dog knew as Grandpa slipped further and further away from us as the months turned into years.
Not counting Mookie, Francis J. Duffy was grandpa to eight people and great grandpa to five. He leaves behind a family of 26 people. And if not for the dedicated and wonderful people who work at Jefferson’s Ferry, he would have died alone, because the pandemic led to the prohibiting of visitors to nursing homes after March 15th.
The last day that Mookie and I made that trip was Saturday February 15th. And I knew it might be the last. I always knew that. Grandpa was getting closer and closer to that dreaded last stage of dementia, the vegetative state.
But never in a million years would I have guessed why it would be our last visit. I guess maybe I shouldn’t have been this naïve, but discouraged and beaten down as I’d been by the last three and a half years of news, I still actually thought that we had at least some scrap of a functioning Federal Government left, some bare system of oversight and protocol, accidentally left over from the Obama Administration, that would have had at minimum some shred of a plan in place to protect its citizenry from a national health emergency.
Instead, it’s 120,000 people dead and counting. And I don’t know who you think gets most of the blame, or who you think should take most of the responsibility.
But I have no doubt.
And so, while this blog post is first and foremost a tribute to my father, a great man in every sense of the word, I know that he would have wanted me to address the sons of bitches who killed him.
My pleasure, Francis. Stick around.
First though, I have to go on one of those long, wonderful tangents that Mom would go on, which as you lovingly pointed out, always started with: “To make a long story short…”
And I also need to explain something to you dear reader from the get-go: More often than not, I refer to my father by his first name, rather than “my father” or “dad”. I jumped back and forth between addressing him either way from the time I was a teenager. He eventually got used to it, and there’s a reason for it.
“Dad” and “Francis” are sort of a Yin and Yang in my mind: In the yin, my father, who taught me structure and self-discipline, optimism and faith; who called out all my bullshit, took care of me, worried about me, helped me out of jams and told me what a goddamn dopey bastard I was being any time it was necessary that I be informed as such. In the yang, Francis, the guy who was an absolute rip to spend time with, the guy who dove right into life whenever he could, and most of all, the guy who taught me the awesome power and potential of thinking for yourself, and the art of expressing those thoughts with style.
Now of course (to go on a further tangent), the name “Francis” often becomes “Frank”, and Francis actually used “Frank” as a sort of professional name, but my mother never called him that, unless she was among the people who knew him professionally. (Sometimes she’d call him “Frankie” with a dash of passive-aggressiveness, which was fun). Francis was his family name, the childhood name by which his Irish immigrant parents called him. “Frank Duffy” was his “stage name”. He had legions of fans as “Frank Duffy”, but more about that guy later.
For now, I don’t mind telling you that in my young and stupid days, my father and I took a long, long ride together on an emotional roller coaster. But emotional roller coasters have highs as well as lows, just like real ones. We had some real good times in there, too. And of course, rides on emotional roller coasters eventually end, just like rides on real ones do. And the first thing you do when it’s over is laugh. So let’s get all of what he would call “the silly shit” out of the way right now.
The fighting was both of our faults, really. It took a long time for both of us to figure the other one out, and I’m not sure if we ever made it all the way there, but we definitely reached a detente. There were things about me, as I began developing into the me that am, that he didn’t particularly like. Exhibit A: My younger propensity for being perfectly happy spending an afternoon strumming on a guitar, quite likely stoned (you dopey bastard) often along with a stereo that was turned up way too loud goddamn it. I suppose if he hadn’t wanted me to pick up on 60’s hippie culture, he shouldn’t have given me four older siblings. But there they were, and I was soaking up everything I saw and heard from them and from their friends. But for Francis, rock and roll, Marlboros and Cannabis, would forever be among things he associated with the rednecks he met in the Merchant Marines.
A side note (I can’t resist irony, even when it breaks the flow of my tangents): My second-greatest loss in the Coronavirus Pandemic (I hope) was the April 7th death of singer-songwriter John Prine. I never tried John’s songs out on Francis, but I bet he would have gotten a kick out of them. (I know he would have known the song “Paradise” from our annual three-week party at Camp Lavigerie it in the Adirondacks. It was practically the national anthem up there). But even if Francis could appreciate a song like “Fish and Whistle” or “It’s a Big Old Goofy World”, Dad would have written off Prine for his drug abuse and for his cavalier, good-timing lifestyle, which was of course, one of the reasons I loved John Prine.
My father didn’t much like anything that was counterculture, I suppose falling right into the whole point of counterculture, which is to piss off your parents. I think the thing he didn’t realize about Monty Python and the Grateful Dead, for example, is that they were actually great art, despite some of their fans. My mother got that, but my dad, not so much. We had to agree to disagree in the end. When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, Francis’ take was: “That’s a shame. Another dopey bastard that didn’t take care of himself.”
He also rightly called me out on a regular basis for emulating working-class kids in Valley Stream (“’you’ze?’ Are you kidding me?”), and it annoyed him that someone with his last name would dumb down to fit in. I know that he and my mother sometimes regretted the decision to send me to the Valley Stream Public Schools instead of Holy Name of Mary School and Maria Regina Catholic High School. We’d get into mighty battles when I was in high school, and he’d point up Jedwood Place to the Big Brick Building on the hill at the end of the street and say, “you got that shit from up there!”
And of course, whatever that shit happened to be on that day, I did, and he nailed it.
But one huge factor at the time was money, as my parents were paying for four college tuitions on civil servant salaries. Education was above everything, though, and my parents were going to give their five children the American Dream if it killed them.
Another factor that I’m sure entered into the equation was that my parents, especially mom, had grown politically more liberal than the church, though they never gave up on it. Ultimately, they saw my unrealized Formal Catholic Education as something could be redlined if they were going to balance the budget.
I’m telling you all this because when the dust started settling on my years’ long fight with my father, he told me once that in a way, I was the one of his five children who was the most like him. I actually couldn’t believe it when he said it. But Francis never lied, and he sure as hell never said things to make you feel better. I still think it’s my brother Thom. Nevertheless, I sort of knew where he was going with this notion. Francis and I did have a lot of personality traits in common. (Among them to this day, the habit of walking around closing all the windows in the house when waking up from a Saturday afternoon nap, purposefully making small talk with strangers, and a long, slow “wooooowww!” when confronted something unexpectedly good or bad).
But if he ever realized what I realized about the two of us as I was writing this, he never told me.
My parents met at and both graduated in 1948 from W.C Bryant High School in Long Island City. Francis joined the Merchant Marines and sailed all over the world straight out of high school while his future wife went on to the College of New Rochelle, run by the Ursuline Sisters. She then got her master’s degree from the Jesuits at Fordham. My two older brothers and two older sisters all had twelve years of Catholic School. All four went to Catholic Colleges at some point. I never went away to college. I chipped away at it for 14 years until I earned myself a master’s degree from CUNY Queens College. Francis got his bachelor’s degree from Pace University when he was 47 years old.
So Francis and I were the only public school kids, and the only night school kids. And maybe that made the two of us quicker on the draw, and a little less filtered.
While a more christian soul you’ll never meet, my father had an explosive temper, and I found myself on the receiving end a lot, but in fairness, only when I had it coming. Because it wasn’t displaced anger in any way. Yeah, he had a lot of pressure as a working father of five, but when he was pissed at me, it wasn’t frustration about money or work or anything. He was just pissed at me. I learned that It’s hard to hide from that, and harder still to defend yourself from somebody who is going to raise you right whether you goddamn liked it or not. As a father, as he always said, he was in business to put himself out of business.
And there were things about my father that pissed me off and frustrated me, and of course, when I was young and assholish I felt compelled to let him know all about these things on a regular basis. I could yell, too. I was like him, remember? But on one of these occasions, when I was way too old to be getting into these pissing matches with him, he said something that landed.
“You know,” he said, in his sidearm delivery, “I’ve made it. I’m a success. I don’t have to prove a goddamn thing to you.”
The gauntlet was thrown. I wanted to be able to say that back.
Which brings me around to why he’s Francis to me as much as Dad.
Dad always had the potential to erupt in that quick-tempered volcano of anger. He got loud, and it got old. If you left a storm door open for more than ten seconds between November and May, he would scream, “The HEAT damn it!” If you opened that same door for more than ten seconds between June and October, he would scream, “The BUGS damn it!” The yelling drove my mom nuts, but she yelled right back. And then he yelled some more. They were Great Depression kids, and they were Irish and they were from Queens and they were yellers. I don’t know about my brothers and sisters, but that was something I had to unlearn. I thought everybody yelled at their families.
But when he wasn’t Angry Dad, yelling about opening the wrong windows or mowing the lawn or getting the inspection done on your car three weeks in advance or stepping on the kitchen floor he just friggin’ waxed two hours ago, he was Francis.
And Francis was as cool as they come.
A guru, a great philosopher, a mind fertile with lightning-fast comebacks and one-liners, clever adages and common-sense wisdom that have stuck to me like barnacles. Francis could put you away in five words and you’d have no choice but to laugh at how fast he shut you up. He once tried to convince my brother Mike to buy a used car rather than a brand new one. (“For Christ’s sake! You’re paying for new!”). Mike told him he needed a car he could rely on. Francis came back smiling and snarling with: “Not me! I want a car that breaks down all the time! It’s exciting!”
Francis was fun to listen to and knew how to carry a conversation. Like my mom, and his mom and dad, and most of the population of Ireland, he told a great story. He had an artist’s eye for detail, especially with a camera in his hands. His game face to the world was that warm, twinkling bug-eyed Irish smile, a firm handshake and a confident laugh. He was a Dale Carnegie disciple who developed a magic ability to connect with people, a skill that made him hundreds and hundreds of friends (some of whom of course called him Frank). And not only that, he had friends of all colors, religions and persuasions. And while he couldn’t resist a wise ass remark about any given person it fell in his lap, he did not discriminate. He was an equal-opportunity ball-buster, but he was also a lot of peoples’ friend, and he took that obligation seriously.
And here’s another thing I can tell you: Francis found every way he could to love the life he lived and live the life he loved. I even saw this as a kid. He enjoyed waking up on a weekend morning and announcing loudly, “THANK GOD FOR A NEW DAY!!!”. And the older he got (until he hit the wall), the more fun he had. In his prime, he kept his deposition sunny, despite yelling about the mud you just tracked into the house. He never let life wear him down.
He loved his family and he loved his religion. He wasn’t a fan of taking shit. When we would get in fights amongst the seven of us in this tiny house, he’d quote Jesus and say “Love One Another!”, but he’d bark it in a loud, sharp staccato, as to suggest that if we didn’t shut up, stop annoying him and start loving one another immediately, it was going to be somebody’s ass.
I don’t think that’s how Jesus said it, but he well may have. No matter.
Francis Duffy was a template in how to live a life in which, as he said, he slept like a baby every night. He was faithful to the same woman for over 60 years. He always put his family first and earned every penny he made. He didn’t smoke, and he let me know I was a horse’s ass for doing so, but beyond that he didn’t preach. However, it was vintage Francis when he decided he had enough of my leaving extinguished cigarette butts on his property, picked them all up one day and left them waiting for me on my pillow.
He was not slimy nor duplicitous. He was exactly who he was, right in front of you. He never had to cover his ass because he never did anything wrong. He never needed a drink, though he’d enjoy one when he felt like it. (I can still taste the quick sip of Rheingold Beer from his German Stein when I was a wee lad). He managed to avoid the word “fuck” 98% of the time. He valued learning and expanding one’s horizons above all else. He especially disliked the “uncouth”.
He was honest, generous, straightforward, responsible and trustworthy. He was a grown up and a gentleman through and through. And all the while (and more and more as he got older) he walked through this world as comfortable in his own skin as in his myriad collection of L.L. Bean flannel shirts.
And this above all: He was not, as he specifically instructed me that I, as a Duffy, could not and would never be, “one of those ‘gloms’.”
I’m pretty sure he made that word up, but goddamn if I don’t know a “glom” when I see one.
You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a glom these days.
He yelled at me and threatened me as my father because he felt like he had to. He even said to me once in anger, “I’m not your friend. I don’t want to be your friend. I’m your father,” which was a notion I totally didn’t get and very much resented greatly at the time, especially since my mother always managed to be both my mother and my friend.
My mother loved my father and my father loved my mother, but my mother would get as frustrated as I would with his stubborn intractability, his impossibly high moral standards and his quick judgement on people who didn’t live up to them, me chiefly among them. One day when I was in my twenties we were talking behind his back and I hit on something that made her laugh and laugh, to the point where she had to fill him in on the joke later and we all three got a good laugh about it.
This is what I told her: My father has divided the world into two groups of people: Great guys and dopey bastards.
Ultimately, I became one of the few people, if not the only one, who crossed that bridge.
I don’t think he had to be as hard on me as he was, but in retrospect, there was no way for him to know that. I guess he didn’t realize that I was studying the Art of Being Francis the whole time he wasn’t yelling. And once he didn’t have to be my father as much, and I began recovering from assholism to the extent that he could finally put himself out of business, Francis and I became good friends, the way I’d always wanted it. And as I morphed from what my mother called “an old Irish bachelor” in my early thirties to a husband and father, landed suburban gentry, the guy who bought his house in Valley Stream, my father and I never had a cross word between us again, and we enjoyed each’s other’s company as I wished we’d always been able to. I spent his last twenty years going out east every four or five weeks to spend some time with my old friend Francis Duffy. And there were a few years there, in between Mom’s dying and his dementia swallowing him up completely, where he was able to get a few words in edgewise.
And while I am not him, and quite frankly (pun intended), not worthy to carry his legacy, and while to this day I still enjoy strumming a guitar and playing the stereo too loud, I’ve adopted a lot of his ways, and a lot of his ways of thinking. People say I’m more my mother’s son, but that’s chiefly because of the things I love, which she taught me to love. Vivaldi, Steinbeck, the Impressionists, stuff like that. Francis is more responsible for my game plan, for the way I show up in the world and what I say and do when I get there, not to mention how I talk about the world when it’s not listening.
As a matter of fact, once my wife got to know both of us pretty well, she pointed out to me that I was essentially “Stoned Francis”, an appellation which I wear proudly. Interpret this as you wish. I will say no more, other than to say that, as usual, she got that right.
And though I may be more flexible about who has to stand in which corner, I’ve come to realize that the great guys of this world (and by the way, the female equivalent is “smart woman” and the opposite of “smart” isn’t “dumb”, it’s “silly”), the critical thinkers of this world, the compassionate, the empathetic, the fair-minded, the educated: We are in a constant, never-ending struggle with the dopey bastards who want to take us down, mostly because we seem so much happier, and they hate that.
So in order not to let the dopey bastards win this round, settle back and let me tell you the story of a great guy. It has a sad ending, as we all do, I suppose. Maybe sadder than most though. But it’s a hell of a story.
Francis had a childhood tougher than most, followed by a blessed and wildly successful adulthood, followed by a truly amazing second act that got going once he had begun to “put himself out of business” as a father, followed by a heartbreakingly sad final stretch to the finish line.
He was born the second child of Daniel Duffy and Mary (aka Molly) Duffy (nee Geraghty). They lived in a walk-up apartment at 41-07 28th Avenue in Astoria, Queens. His older brother Daniel is still with us, living in California. His father Daniel Duffy was from Derry, Northern Ireland. His mother was from a little town called Granard in County Longford, right in the center of the Old Country.
So I guess I don’t have to tell you where the Duffy Family stands on immigration issues.
Dan and Molly met here in New York and were married in June of 1923 at the church of St. John the Evangelist on East 55th Street in Manhattan. This was four years after Dan earned his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, where he fought on the Western Front from September 1918 until Armistice Day ended WWI fourteen months later. Dan volunteered his services to the Army at the age of 25 in order to earn his American Citizenship. His engagements included the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, where 26,000 soldiers died.
But Dan didn’t. And with that old Duffy Luck working in his favor, he found Molly, who had come over with her sister Agnes from small-town Granard, working first as a domestic and later as a cook at Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant. (Yes, the prize fighter. And Aunt Agnes, who lived into her 90’s and got to tell me lots of stories, was the hat check girl at the Biltmore Hotel, and “oh, Johnny, I got ta meet everyone!”).
During Francis’ grade school years, smack in the middle of the Great Depression, Dan was not well for a long time. I’d tell you why, but when it comes to discussing other people’s problems, I share the mantra of the guys of Dan’s and Francis’ generation: “It’s none of your goddamn business”. Suffice to say, Molly had to keep the family afloat, and it could not have been easy.
In his public school years, Francis was not the most natural student, which is how he met the love of his life. He was just trying to get through 11th grade English at Bryant High School when he caught the eye of the best student in the class, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed knockout from a more “lace curtain Irish” family by the name of Joan Marie Scully. They began dating and got married four years out of high school.
And, because he looked at life through his own little funhouse mirror (and taught me to do the same), in Francis’ world, you had to hum along when you drove over drawbridges (aka “singing bridges”), and the guy who painted the arrows for the twisting road signs upstate was drunk on the job. And thus, he told me when I was very little that he had to get married at 23 because he started losing his hair and it became a race against time before my mother wouldn’t want him anymore. He also told me that the monks who he stayed with in Germany had tattooed the Lord’s Prayer in miniature on his bald spot, but you had to look really close to see it. And when you’d look really close to see it, he’d start tickling you and say “Stop means go!” You’d stay “STOP!”, and he’d keep going until you said “GO!”, then he’d keep going anyway.
During the four years between high school and marriage, Joan earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of New Rochelle, making her mark as the editor of the school newspaper. She went on to earn a master’s degree in English and education and began what would be 25-year teaching career with a 16-year maternity leave in the middle of it.
But Francis’ application to the Officers’ Training Program at Maine Maritime Academy was rejected, and he decided that “regular college” was not for him. He joined the merchant marines as a seaman at 18 years old. His dream of going out to sea had been the candle burning inside his brain since he was a boy. And that candle was still burning when he co-authored The New York Harbor Book with his friend Bill Miller half a century later.
So here is Francis J. Duffy himself to tell you all about it, from the introduction to the book, published in 1986, when he was 56, a year younger than I am now:
“It was one of those moments that never faded from my memory, during a walk with my father across the recently opened Triborough Bridge. Looking down from the walkway, 315 feet above the East River and the infamous Hell Gate waters, I watched the ships and boats below and confidently told my father that when I grew up, I wanted to work on ships…The panorama of vessels was endless; tankers, cargo ships, military vessels, tugs, barges and railroad car floats, enough to hold a young boy’s attention for hours on end and encourage him to build dreams of sailing away someday…I did fulfill my dream after high school, sailing in the merchant marine on tankers, liberty ships, troop transports and even refugee carriers. Although the romance of the sea paled after I was married and had children, even after swallowing the anchor and coming ashore to work, my fascination with things maritime has never ended.”
As you can see, Francis was a really smart guy who was frustrated that he didn’t do better in school. In the course of his life, he went on to write two books and hundreds of magazine articles, not to mention his ten years as the editor of Towline, the in-house magazine of the Moran Towing Company, who not only had the flashiest tugboats in NY Harbor but also the best season-ticket box at Shea Stadium.
As a teacher, I saw this a lot over 25 years. Young people with loads of natural intelligence who I knew were going to turn out just fine, but who just were not good at “the school game.” As a matter of fact, when I started a teaching job in 1995 at Rockaway Beach Junior High School, in one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods, Francis tossed me a piece of wisdom that nobody in the Education Department at CUNY Queens ever thought to say, something that guided my whole approach to conquering the job. He said, “Don’t expect those kids down there to have middle class values. If you were them, with what they go through, you wouldn’t give a shit either.”
If you think this advice smacks of racism, you didn’t know Francis. It was his way of warning me that throwing your white privilege around won’t win you friends in the projects of Rockaway. You’d be amazed how many people I worked with who didn’t get that. Then again, no you wouldn’t.
As far as I’m concerned, my parents were on the right side of history on just about every issue: Race, immigration, social services, human rights, worker’s rights, you name it. They were dyed-in-the-wool Liberal Democrats who worshipped FDR and mourned John F. Kennedy, and they weren’t fooled by Nixon or Reagan for a damned second. I try to see things from other people’s political and social points-of-view. I really do. But more often than not, when I run it through my parents’ filter, it comes out horse shit.
As a young man sailing on transport ships as a merchant seaman, Francis got to meet other young men from all over the country, and as a straight-arrow, ultra-Catholic Northeastern Liberal, he took an immediate dislike to the “yahoos” from the South (with their guitars and their cigarettes). Everyone had to share quarters with a bunkmate, and Francis became aware that one of these yahoos was complaining that his bunkmate was black. Francis told him he’d switch bunks with him, as the black guy had to be a better bet than the asshole redneck he had gotten stuck with. And he and a seaman named Charlie Calhoun became good friends and kept in touch throughout their lives. AND, when he found out that Charlie’s son Will was the drummer for the band Living Colour, he also had something cool to tell his son John, who likes that kind of music.
I heard my father make lots of snide comments about people of all races and creeds, mostly for what he saw as the sin of falling into the stereotypes they would have been best to try to avoid. He hated the negative stereotypes of the Irish, but he hated even more the Irish that perpetuated those stereotypes. There was a subset that he called “The Bullshit Stage Irish”, the ones that talked way too loud and drank way too much and gave the rest of us a bad name. He liked Irish music if it had some depth, but he referred to the more commercialized stuff as “that diddley-diddley shit.”
But Francis was ultimately every ethnic group’s rooting squad, in that he’d rip into anybody who would attempt to disparage any group at large, or to suggest that any color or creed was inherently inferior. I learned that one very early on: Only dopey bastards think they’re better than everyone because they’re white.
Francis didn’t like to talk about his childhood much, but he loved to talk about his time in the merchant marines. In case you don’t know, (and I probably wouldn’t have), the simplest way I can explain the merchant marines is that it’s sort of an auxiliary of the Navy, with privately-owned ships that are commissioned by the government to move cargo and troops. It’s sort of quasi-military. They wear uniforms and they have officers, which is what he wanted to be, but his high school grades weren’t good enough. He would work as a merchant seaman six months on and six months off. He did this straight out of high school until his first child came along about five years later.
As I was writing this post in the weeks after Francis’ death, my brother Thom actually did something useful, pulling some strings to get a feature obituary article published in both The New York Times and Newsday. He then sent links to the email addresses that Francis still had in his old-fashioned rolodex. What ensued was a kind of slow-motion virtual wake, with many of his colleagues from the “Frank Duffy, Maritime Writer and Photographer” years checking in with kind words and memories.
In an ironic twist, after not making the cut for officer’s training, years and years later, he was one of the founders of the Maritime Industry Museum of SUNY Maritime College at Fort Schuyler. Jim McNamara, one of the gentleman he worked with on this project, wrote a letter to the directors and friends of the museum informing them of the sad news. The information he included in that letter filled in a few blanks for me regarding Francis’ merchant marine Service.
Because of Mr. McNamara, I know that Francis attended The Seamen’s Church Institute, still in business today at 25 South Street in Manhattan. He earned his seaman’s papers and spent the majority of his tours working for the Army Transport Service aboard a troopship called the Alexander Patch.
His crossed the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and into The Mideast at the age when I was flunking out of classes at Nassau Community College and posing in bars that blasted Depeche Mode and Haircut 100, not to mention living on his dime.
On one of his tours, he signed up to take care of military dogs who were being transported to Europe, because he’d get to hang out with dogs all day. I loved the image of my father as a young man in uniform surrounded by a bunch of German Shepherds. Mookie could certainly attest to his love of animals.
Many, many years later, my parents ended up taking in a formerly feral cat that, despite being very small, had pumped out more than one litter of kittens in the backyard. At some point during her life in the wild, Runt the Cat had gotten her tail bitten off. But she was an excellent cat, and my parents even took her with them when they moved out east.
It’s a pretty safe bet to judge people by how they treat animals, never mind their children. My oldest sister brought home a kitten that a guy was about to drown in the creek on my second birthday in 1965. Herman the Cat went on to live with us for 18 years. When Herman was an old man, he would jump up next to his buddy Francis at dinner every night. And every night, Francis would greet him by saying, “Hello son!”.
And because I had started bugging my parents for a dog from the time I was five, I have a vivid picture in my head of my father’s one in a million smile when they brought Ace the Dog home to me one August afternoon when I was eight.
Runt The Cat
Herman The Cat
Runt the Cat died in Francis’ lap one night out in Jefferson’s Ferry. In retrospect, it was a turning point, as it seemed like my parents really started to decline after they had nobody left to take care of.
Anyway (as our long story lengthens), we have to make one last Port of Call for the merchant marine years, so I can tell you the story of how Francis ended up in the job that he turned into his “marketable skill”, a phrase with which his children were all very, very familiar. From the 1950’s until the 1980’s, Francis made his living with his stationary engineer’s license. He was a member of Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineer’s, and proud of it. As he told it to me, the reason that he chose this particular career path is because he was sailing through the North Atlantic, and it was bone-chilling cold. He happened to go down to the ship’s boiler room for some reason and saw a group of guys sitting at a card table, drinking coffee, all toasty warm. And he said sign me up.
The punchline is that once he started working in the boiler room, all his assignments were sailing into the Middle East, and it was 500 degrees in the boiler room.
So Francis has his around-the-world adventures, finds out he’s going to be a father, resigns from the merchant marines the year the Korean War ends, takes his marketable skill and his engineer’s license and gets a job helping to run the terminal buildings at Idlewild Airport, a decade before it became JFK.
And it’s funny: Had he gotten into Maine Maritime Academy and had he become an officer; he would have been away from his family six months a year. I could not imagine what that would have been like, and I’m sure once he settled into his new role as Dad, he couldn’t have either.
Francis started his Dad Career at the age of 24 and he and Joan bought a house when they were both 25. Valley Stream was an easy commute to Idlewild, but Joan wanted to be near the water. And Francis’ overriding mantra was “Whatever Joan Wants.” So first they looked at houses on the Freeport Canals and I’m glad they didn’t buy one. For them, and later for Trisha and me, finding The House on Duffy’s Creek, which had gone up for sale by the original owners only five years after it was built, was Divine Providence. But the mortgage on $13,500 scared the hell out of them.
By the time I arrived as the Fifth Duffy in 1963 (“The Last of The Mohicans” was one of my Francis Names, along with dopey bastard), my parents had already been in the family-raising business for ten years. And when I was sixth months old, and Francis was 33, his own father died suddenly at 69. Joan had already lost her father in 1955, also in his 60’s. So no Grandpas for me.
As a matter of fact, the three people John Daniel Duffy was named for, including a Grandpa, a Pope and a President, all died the year I was born. My mother told me, lots and lots of times, that one of her nun buddies from the College of New Rochelle remarked that this meant I had “three good friends at the right hand of God,” which I bet is just about the most Irish freaking thing you’ve ever heard.
Needless to say, I’ve always loved the creek that runs in back of our house. It’s been flowing nonstop through every story I’ve told you today, and the ones I haven’t gotten to yet, and to me that’s something worth paying attention to. Francis liked to look out the window at the creek changing with the seasons and the tides and say, “it’s like being on vacation every day.” So for the point at which I enter the story, we may as well start with the creek.
Duffy’s Creek is actually a brackish tidal basin that takes in saltwater from Jamaica Bay and fresh water from a stream system and a small lake running about six miles north. It was commonly known as Watt’s Creek when I was a kid, until I changed it. Francis bought an aluminum rowboat and a 15mph Johnston Outboard Motor to take us for rides. A couple of times we hitched the boat to a trailer and went out from the Woodmere Docks to explore the Bay Houses. At the time, you could get all the way out to the airport and the bay from our backyard, and there was actually a “5 mph speed limit sign” posted on the creek. People would come down in motorboats, wave to us, realize they couldn’t get past the dam on Mill Road, turn around, wave to us again, and go back towards Rosedale.
But an adventure of this sort was not advised, as the tide in Jamaica Bay could mess you up bad if you didn’t know what you were doing. And this gave rise to Francis’ favorite bedtime story, about the boy who didn’t listen to his father and took the boat out without permission, “and he went down past Mr. Campbell’s house, down past Mr. Burnett’s House, down past Mr. O’Neill’s House, down past the high school, under the bridge, out past the airport, into the ocean, and they never saw him again.”
My brother Thom asked me once what I believe is the single biggest gift I got from being raised in The Art of Being Francis. One thing came to mind right away. My father taught me the incomparable feeling of piloting a boat on the water and knowing what you’re doing. I definitely don’t like it as much as he did, though. I went on an Outward Bound trip in Maine when I was 16, where we sailed on the open ocean, and while I’m glad I had the experience, I pretty much hated it. I’m more of a flat water guy. My parents loved to go on cruises, and personally I would rather be trapped in a basement for a week. But about six years ago, I got in touch with my Inner Francis and started kayaking, and to teach my son to love it. And my dad is right there with me any time I’m not on terra firma.
Meanwhile, heading the other way up the creek, my maternal grandmother, Julia Scully, bough the house next door to us a year after my parents moved here, and commenced to drive Francis up the wall for the next thirty years. But he was the one who had originally convinced her to move out to the suburbs when the house went on the market shortly after my grandfather William Scully died. Whatever Joan wants.
While it was nice having a contiguous lawn to play on, I could tell from when I was very young that Grandma Scully was a handful. She paid my parents one dollar every night to deliver (via me) a plate of whatever they were having for dinner that night across the lawn to her kitchen table. Francis pointed out many, many times what a great deal Grandma was getting on the “dollar supper”, which wasn’t adjusted for inflation once in over thirty years.
She also decided that she would help my mother out by having one of us bring freshly dried laundry in baskets over to her attic, where there was an ancient, out of tune piano that I’m sure she must have insisted had to be carried down the stairs of her apartment building in Astoria, into a van and back up the stairs to the unfinished attic of 81 Jedwood Place in Valley Stream. There, next to this never-played piano, she would separate, fold and iron the laundry so one of us could be sent back over to get it later, sometimes followed several hours later by Francis saying, “where the hell is my (shirt / underwear/ pajamas / etc.)?”
And thus was born, in the wonderful mind of Francis J. Duffy, the Legend of The Sock-Eating Piano.
And here’s another legendary family story: My father’s personal mic drop when it came to my maternal grandmother. Grandma Scully took Francis aside on his wedding day to tell him that there was no room for him in the Scully Plot at St. John’s Catholic Cemetery, which they have had since the mid 19th Century. Really. That happened. And If he told the Scully Plot story once, damned if he hadn’t told it five-hundred times. And yet he made sure she was taken care of by moving her out to Valley Stream and making it seem like her idea, when it was his idea.
And today, he is buried in the Scully Plot, but they spelled his name on the headstone with an “e” by mistake.
So I guess it was a draw.
Now, when I was very little I had a thought that I knew I couldn’t express out loud, which was that I wished the fun Grandma lived next door to us instead. My father’s mother was my good buddy until I was eight years old. She would come to visit every few weeks from Astoria, or we would go to see her. I once told her that I liked the little cartoons on the Quaker Instant Oatmeal envelopes. From that day forward, she saved me every single oatmeal envelope that she emptied, carefully torn off at the top. She probably had just saved another one the day she fell on the street and broke her hip, which was when they found out she had advanced bone cancer.
My “Grandma Duffy” and I lit up around each other. I was “her Johnny” and I could listen to her Irish lilt all day. Having a grandparent from the Old Country was like having access to a TV station that no one else got, where they even speak a different kind of English. And I later found out, through reading captions she wrote on old photographs in an album I found in the attic of my house, that she was the real reason why we were all funny. I knew there was a reason I liked her best when I was little, but I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. That was it. She was funny. And now that I know that her birthplace was established in the year 256, I like to think that being a wiseass is buried deep in the Duffy DNA. You probably had to be pretty good to make people laugh in 256.
When she was dying of cancer in 1971 at St. Rose’s Hospice on the Lower East Side, my father drove me in on a Sunday morning to say goodbye. Of course he did his tour guide narrative on the way, telling me all about the buildings and history around me, as he did whenever we drove into the city. Still, that must have been a rough one for him. I know this because the day I drove my own eight-year old son to Mather Hospital to say goodbye to his Grandma Duffy forty years later was a rough one for me.
Through most of the 60’s and 70’s, my parents didn’t have two dimes to rub together. Yet every summer from 1966 to 1974, we went on a two or three three-week vacation to a paradise in the Adirondack Mountains called Camp Lavigerie. Francis hauled hundreds of pounds of humans and cargo 700 miles round trip in the red VW Bus he bought new in 1964 and sold to some hippies in 1972. (It was white Ford station wagons after that. Then nothing but Honda Accords).
Now, you ask, what would a guy who loved hanging out around New York Harbor and watching the big ships sailing past the Statue of Liberty be doing in the Adirondacks for three weeks every July? Well, the answer to that question is Whatever Joan Wants. My mother was introduced to the North Country by her college roommate and she fell in love. And Francis loved Joan, so he also learned to love mountains and lakes. And so did I. The 15 mph Johnston Outboard Motor was the first thing to go in the bus every summer, ready to be hooked up to a rented aluminum boat, ready to take us to Bing Tormey’s General Store across Lake Kushaqua, where Francis would pick up the New York Times and where I first picked up a mournful taste for Dr. Pepper. And I and my brothers and sisters have been drawn back to Lake Kushaqua like moths over and over as the years pass. Last summer, I had the unique pleasure of kayaking on Kushaqua with my son Jack, my brother Mike and his girlfriend, more than fifty years after that first trip to Tormey’s.
In August of 1972, the year after Molly died, we took another week or so of vacation to circle the coast of Ireland in a rented car, with a trip inland to the village of Granard in County Longford, where she was born before the first dawn of the 20th Century. My parents decided to take just me and my brother Thom, four and a half years older than me. The older three stayed back and threw parties while Grandma Scully was in charge next door. We couldn’t go to Derry in the North to see where Dan was born because of the troubles at the time. Of course, Francis was ready to go anyway, but the car rental company wouldn’t let him.
In Granard, I remember Francis getting out of the car to talk to a local fellow to find out directions to the home of some cousins he thought he might find, and the guy turned out to be his cousin. I can see that moment like it happened yesterday; the stone house, the hedgerows, my dad’s hat and trench coat, the whole thing. I even remember the red rental car. The trip was magical to me: Exploring castle ruins, watching the patchwork of green from the airplane landing at Shannon Airport, meeting other distant relatives who looked and sounded like leprechauns (their name was Ellis and they lived on a farm), following Thom as we snuck out of the hotel room in Dublin to do our own exploring when my parents left us there for a couple of hours, and best of all to a seven year-old, hotels with heated indoor swimming pools.
Years later (and we’ll get there if you stick around), when my father became Frank Duffy, everybody’s go-to maritime writer and aerial photography specialist in New York Harbor, and built his own free-lancing business by, among other adventures, taking pictures of all manner of sailing vessels while hanging out of rented helicopters and scaring the crap out of my mom (whom he reassured by telling her they were all piloted by Vietnam Vets), he named that business Granard Associates. And the genesis of Granard Associates was when he bought his first of many SLR cameras for that trip to Ireland in 1972, probably about five years before he sold his first picture as Frank Duffy.
Ireland, of course, is a really good place to take pictures, provided you follow some simple, established protocols.
Alas, the rules of society were nothing in the face of Francis J. Duffy with a camera. If the shot was there, he was going for it. Trespassing on private property was of trivial concern compared to getting a great picture, which explains why several years after the Ireland trip, he committed several felonies one Summer Sunday afternoon to take a pilot boat out to the then abandoned Ellis Island – the place where both of his parents first met New York City – to break into the buildings and take pictures, taking his two youngest sons along for the history lesson, but fortunately not to witness him being arrested and led into custody. Naturally, he and his buddy the pilot boat captain got away with the whole thing,
Sometime in the early 1990’s, I heard that they were tearing down the vaudeville-era Rio Theater in my hometown of Valley Stream that week.
I happened to mention this to my father on a Saturday afternoon. We were literally inside the theater taking pictures half an hour later. There were guys working on the demo crew who saw him walk in with the big, fancy camera around his neck and just assumed he belonged there.
But he met his match the afternoon when we saw the Tinkers’ trailer parked along the road. Tinkers are the Gypsies of Ireland. The name derives from making a living as tinsmiths. It is politically correct in Ireland to call them the Travelers. Francis called them the Tinkers.
We pulled over to get a look at a Tinker’s trailer. I can see it. Ornate wood designs painted bright reds and blues and oranges, with three steps up to a red door that looked like the door in the tree in fairy tales. He told me to run over and stand in front of it while he drew that SLR Camera from the bag. Dutifully, I stood on the steps. The little second-generation leprechaun.
And the Tinker emerges from that fairytale door, looking quite like a fairytale character himself, and not one of the nice ones. He grabs me by the collar of my windbreaker and suggests to the man with the camera that ya may want to pay me a few pounds fer takin’ pictures of me house, Yank. And the man with the camera quickly came to a financial arrangement with the Tinker, who in turn released me.
And for years and years and years, I could count on Francis to pull out one of his all-time best lines, every few times I wised-off to him, or was otherwise annoying:
“I should have left you with the Goddamn Tinkers.”
Francis was a busy guy in the 1970’s. With four kids in college, his wife went back to work as a New York City high school English teacher when I started first grade. He had left the airport around 1965 for a new, better-paying job as a school custodian engineer for the NYC Board of Education, then by the time he was sporting his 70’s sideburns, he grabbed a position as the supervisor of school custodians. His territory was Greenwich Village down to Chinatown. On school vacations, I had designated “Go to Work with Dad” days. That would mean getting up early to drive to the Queens Courthouse Municipal Parking Lot on the Belt Parkway and the Van Wyck Expressway (the first time I heard him say “fuck”), then taking the E or the F downtown (where I was instructed that people on subways do not make eye contact) to the office that he shared with the other supervisors on 7th Avenue South. I can still see Mr. Strom, the big guy with the round glasses who talked about his place up in the country, and Mr. Lambert, the black guy with the jazzy sportscoat and hat who followed the Mets just like I did.
Francis’ job was to go from school to school and check in with the custodian, take a look around, then sign the book. Interestingly, he and the men he supervised were all in the same union. He referred to them as “The Good Brothers”. Not a dopey bastard among them as far as I know.
On my first Go to Work with Dad Day, we were walking through the cafeteria of an elementary school in Chinatown. Every single child in the room was Chinese except me. So just to screw with me, he said, “you’re gonna eat lunch with the kids here while I go to the office, OK?”, then enjoyed replaying my reaction to one of the Good Brothers, then to everybody in the family when we got home.
Lesson: Being freaked out because you’re in a room where nobody looks like you is just silly. Get over it.
One of the main highlights of Go to Work with Dad day was lunch at the Blue Mill Restaurant, tucked away in a little side street of 7th Ave South. As a man who thought cooking was something his mother, the ship’s cook or his wife did, Francis was a huge fan of restaurants, and had a collection of matchbooks from every restaurant he visited under glass on the top of his dresser, though of course he didn’t smoke. He and the Good Brothers always took their full hour for lunch. I remember Francis greeting the owner of the Blue Mill warmly, even though to me he looked like the guy who used to beat up Charlie Chaplin.
The other highlight of the day was the S.S. John Brown.
The John Brown was a WW II Victory Ship, one of 2,700 built in the blink of an eye when this country could do things. “The Brown” operated as a merchant marine ship before being converted into a New York City Vocational High School in 1946. Until 1983, the “School Ship” trained thousands of guys to be merchant marines. In retrospect, I think Francis took that commute downtown for the better part of twenty years just to get to know restaurateurs and hang out on the John Brown every chance he got.
The Brown was docked on Pier 43 at the end of West 25th Street, where the locals would sunbathe in thongs while rubbing suntan lotion on each other intimately and Francis would walk right by like they weren’t there.
He loved showing his kids around the kind of ship where he had lived his youthful adventures. And I cannot smell diesel fuel to this day without being seven years old with my dad again.
The John Brown also had a small “training vessel” called the “Pisces”, which is the one we stole to go to Ellis Island.( As you see, I was piloting for a bit, out on New York Harbor). It still astounds me what a ballsy thing that was to do.
And there’s two things I can tell you about the S.S. John Brown: One is that it’s still around, one of the only two remaining Liberty Ships, currently operating as a museum in Baltimore, and if you’re near there, you can visit it. The other thing is that it launched the career of the man everyone connected to New York Harbor would come know and love as Frank Duffy.
Francis Duffy lived in Valley Stream, Long Island for 44 years, but you could have found him in Downtown Manhattan, as his alter-ego Frank Duffy, a good chunk of that time. A couple of nights a week in the years when the tuitions were piling up, he taught aspiring stationery engineers at Apex Technical School. He also took several years of night classes at Pace University to get his bachelor’s degree. This of course gave him more time for restaurants in between jobs, but he also started getting involved in various organizations and projects connected to the Harbor.
Then he started writing articles and taking pictures and getting them published. As a guy who needed my mom to get him through 11th grade English, he was over the moon proud to see his byline in publications like Steamboat Bill and The National Fisherman. (My mom was, of course, his editor, and they fought like hell, but they got the job done). And he kept coming up with new ideas for articles. He loved this cartoon he saw in The New Yorker by Frank Booth, where a man is sitting in front of a typewriter on his front porch staring into space, as ten dogs of different breeds sit around him and his wife says from the doorway, “Write about dogs.”
Frank Duffy wrote about ships. And he took lots and lots and lots of pictures. And he met more and more people and got involved in more and more projects. When the Bicentennial rolled around in 1976, with its parade of big sailing ships passing the Statue of Liberty and its humongous fireworks display, we were on the roof of a local NYC School having a big party. When they renovated the Lady of The Harbor for her 100th birthday ten years later, Francis climbed up on the scaffolding to take pictures.
Here’s the proof:
The side gig got bigger and bigger, to the point where he checked out of there civil service the second he hit 25 years in 1985. Over the ensuing 20 years, he was for ten of them the head of Public Relations for the Moran Towing Company (The tugboats with the big “M” on them). He co-authored a book with his friend Bill Miller called The New York Harbor Book, then wrote his own book, Always on Station, the story of the Sandy Hook Pilots who guide gigantic ships and barges into the Harbor.
One thing I definitely picked up studying The Art of Being Francis was his passion for finding out every single thing he could about any subject that grabbed his attention, then having to tell people what he found out. And, of course, he did most of that before there was an Internet.
At some point, he got interested in the story of The General Slocum Disaster, a major incident in NYC history from June 15, 1904 in which an excursion boat with outdated or non-existent safety equipment caught fire on a day trip shortly after leaving the dock at nine o’clock in the morning. The boat had been rented by St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on the Lower East Side for $350, and was carrying mostly German immigrant woman and children. Of 1,358 passengers, 1,021 died, with the unthinkable choice of being burned alive on the boat or jumping off and drowning in the water. The captain, Harry Van Schaick, was later found guilty of criminal negligence.
Yes, stubbornness, stupidity, poor planning and lack of decisive action can lead to a lot of people dying who shouldn’t have. That’s how the man whose passions led to all sorts of people learning about the forgotten tragedy of the General Slocum ended up dying himself.
But because he lived his life as he did, lots of people know the story of the General Slocum who otherwise wouldn’t, and the memorial for the 1.021 dead that was run-down and neglected in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village is now maintained, and a wreath-laying ceremony started by Frank Duffy still takes places on June 15th to this day. He even made friends with two women who survived the fire as infants: Catherine Connelly, who lived to be 109, and Adella Wotherspoon, an infant in 1904 who died at the age of 100 the month my son was born in 2004. If you want to learn a little more (and get away from me for awhile) You can take a look at Francis himself in this History Channel documentary:
Now, you can imagine with all these irons in the fire, and all this recognition and ego-affirming as Frank Duffy, and all these accomplishments piling up (one of his family jokes was if he were criticized him over something trivial, he’d come back with, “how many guys do you know who have readers all over world?”), he didn’t really have the brain space for this snotty youngest kid who kept screwing up in school, who didn’t share his interests, and seemed to be involved in suspicious activities.
But he never gave up on me. And he always tried to find ways to meet me where I was.
I was his son, and that never stopped counting for something.
Case in point: Francis was not a baseball fan. Couldn’t care less about it. But after my first-grade teacher let us watch the ’69 World Series (which the Mets won on October 16, which was my mom’s 40th birthday) following the Mets was one of my own personal “looking out from the Triborough Bridge” little-boy epiphanies.
And every year from when I was seven until I became an intolerable teenager and started taking the train to Shea with my intolerable teenage friends, Francis would hand me the Mets schedule in March and say, “pick two games”.
Fifteen years or so later, he regularly got the best seats in the house, right behind home plate, from his job at Moran Towing. We got the tickets five or six times a year for over ten years, and I know he especially liked that this made him cooler in my eyes. Plus, he started going to more games himself because his wife really enjoyed it. Whatever Joan Wants.
And twenty years or so after that, shortly before his long, slow decline began, he was flipping through the Times at his table in the yellow cottage at the Jefferson’s Ferry Life Care Community and he saw an ad for a framed picture of the Mookie Wilson’s slow ground ball going under Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series, signed by both Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson, and he said, “I bet you John would like that”, and he ordered it for me on the spot. It is one of my most prized possessions.
So you’d think I would’ve been nicer to him when I was younger.
But, Christ I was a dopey bastard.
My mother saw me going to Syracuse University, majoring in communications, being a famous guy who communicates. Through they were not the least bit rich, Francis would often say to me, “you know I’d pay for Harvard if you got in.”
But with my grades in high school, Nassau Community College was where I wound up.
Then I fucked THAT up.
So after several missteps and several incomplete college courses which cost money, I found myself working at the Foodtown Supermarket during the day and taking classes at night, and instead of going away to college and then going away, I crept further into my twenties still living at home, keeping from Francis from going out of business. Then again, while he was hanging out with what my mom called his “ship buddies in the city”, I was back in Valley Stream mowing the lawn, doing the grocery shopping and driving people to and from the airport when necessary. Then he’d come home and we’d fight about something. So, in a nod to The Pink Panther (and because I inherited Francis’ funhouse mirror), I started calling myself Chan the Houseboy.
Francis introduced me to two people during my Chan the Houseboy years who helped point me in the right direction. One was a world-famous doctor and professor, the other was a custodian engineer.
After one of our regularly scheduled battles, Francis didn’t know what the hell else to tell me, so he gave me a book that he had kept for most of his life. It was a 45-page book, a little bigger than a tin of Altoids, published in 1937. Its text was a speech by Dr. William Osler, a Canadian who was one of the four professors who founded Johns Hopkins Medical School, credited with being the first to include residencies in medical school training.
The speech was given to the Yale Graduating Class of 1917, and it was called “A Way of Life.” Francis was trying to give me the secret of how he became Francis, and I said, “yeah, yeah, whatever.” But I read it. And it got me thinking.
Osler’s philosophy was basically, “get up off your ass and do something.” His “Way of Life” was to take each day of your life as a separate entity (a sort of Zen Buddhist “there is no past there is no future” kind of thing). He proposed that this “handle to fit your life tools.” was to suggest that “life is a habit.” Mastery of life comes through repetition, which means being the same guy every day, preferably a good one.
I’ll let the good Dr. Osler take it for a little bit here:
“Now, for the day itself! What first? Be your own daysman!…Get in touch with the finite, and grasp in full enjoyment that sense of capacity of a machine working smoothly. Join the whole creation of animate things in a deep heartfelt joy that you are alive, that you see the sun, that you are in this glorious earth, which nature has made so beautiful, and which is yours to conquer and enjoy.”
Great stuff, but Osler went on to say that I should quit smoking (“Lady Nicotine”) so I’d feel better in the morning, and I found that an unreasonable request. But he also gave me this pearl of wisdom: “Life is straight, plain business, and the way is clear, blazed for you by generations of strong men, into whose labors you enter and whose ideas must be your inspiration.”
Again, I totally got it, and it’s a part of my overall philosophy. But I found guys like Dr. Osler and my father to be a little too tight in their presentation. I guess I needed “A Way of Life Lite.”
And then I met Joe Darcy.
Mr. Darcy was the Custodian Engineer of PS 205 in Oakland Gardens, south of Bayside, Queens. In the summer, I would go on hiatus from Foodtown, where I was beloved but made $6 an hour, and I’d work as a school cleaner for one of the Good Brothers, where I’d make $13 an hour. (I am the only person you know who did his student teaching in the same school where he had once cleaned the bathrooms). Mr. Darcy was one of my summer bosses.
He was from the Old Country, the size of a thatched cottage, so Irish it was practically exploding out of his face from under a shock of grey hair. He was funny as hell and we took an instant liking to each other. To this day, when I ask my wife if she knows the score of the ballgame, I’ll call out in Darcy’s booming brogue, “SO HOW’RE ME METSIES DOIN’?” The crew was only four guys, but he insisted that we observe holidays, which meant a cold case of Budweiser cans around 2 pm on July 3rd.
At around 4:30 pm that day, walking out to our respective cars, Mr. Darcy had some wisdom for me, which he imparted by practically swallowing me up under his arm:
“Let me tell ya somethin’ about yer father, Johnny. Yer father? He’s a PROUD motherfucker! And ya got to do right by him, Johnny! ‘Cause he’s a good man. Now you and me, Johnny, we’re a couple of fuck ups. We’ll always be a couple of fuck ups. But YOU! (poking me in the chest with a gigantic finger at this point) You gotta do right by him! You can’t embarrass him! You hear me, Johnny? He’s a PROUD mother fucker!”
Now I knew from Francis that Darcy was not a fuck up. Not at all. After emigrating to New York from Ireland, he had put himself through school at night while working as a bellhop in a Manhattan hotel and had earned his stationary engineer’s license. He was a husband, a father and a homeowner. But Darcy could see that I was not as tightly wrapped as my father, and I’m sure he had heard stories about me, so he took it upon himself to point me towards an achievable goal: Be who you are, but don’t embarrass that man.
I guess that was the first step towards becoming Stoned Francis. But I can be a proud motherfucker, too.
The Chan The Houseboy Agreement was that I paid for my tuition and expenses and lived rent-free as long as I was chipping away at a degree. Rent on Long Island was and is insane, and many of my friends had gotten around that by getting married. It was not an ideal situation of course, but one upside is that Francis and Joan were gone about six weeks of the year at this point, going on cruises and other trips that Francis was either getting gratis in exchange for his photojournalist services or using as a fat tax write off. The grandchildren started coming around this time and my parents were in their glory. (Chan The Houseboy was also very good at being Uncle John). They had finally put themselves out of business, notwithstanding the young fellow living in their attic.
In the end, I took Chan eight years to get a four-year degree, parlaying an Associate’s credits to a B.A in English degree from CUNY in 1989. I was completely embarrassed by how long it took, and that I was living at home at 26. But Francis insisted that we celebrate the occasion. At the time, he owned a small share of a “party boat” operating near the South Street Seaport called the Mystique. My parents invited a bunch of their friends and insisted that I invite a bunch of my friends, and we sailed around New York Harbor on beautiful summer night and we had a grand old time.
It’s funny to me in retrospect that I normally would try to keep my friends away from Francis, even though he’d always fool me and wind up finding something in common with them, long hair, leather jackets, bloodshot eyes, tattoos and all. That was his Dale Carnegie thing. Years later, my wife said whenever she saw him, he’d ask about her parents and her sisters and brothers, and he’d remember something she said last time, and there’d be no question that he wasn’t just making small talk. He actually wanted to know. And if you’d introduce someone to Francis, he’s often come back at you a month later, and say, “Hey, did ____ get that job?” You could say It was a pretty amazing gift he had, but it wasn’t a gift. It was a habit he had worked at. A Way of Life.
My first post-BA job was in the production department of New York Magazine. Francis was impressed. My first place off Jedwood Place was a house I shared with two Valley Stream buddies 20 miles north, overlooking Hempstead Harbor in Sea Cliff, Long Island. Francis was both impressed and happy to get rid of me. It helped that my share of the rent (for a room the size of a walk-in closet) was $400, because the glamourous city job paid $18,000 a year. After a year in Sea Cliff, the other two guys, who had lived there for five years before me, were completely sick of each other and decided not to renew the lease, and I was back to the attic of my parents’ house at the age of 27.
The starting salary for a NYC teacher at the time was $28,000. After experiencing the kissassitocracy of the New York Publishing world, civil service, the family business, started looking better and better. Despite my mother warning me (and rightly so) that it was a lot harder than it seemed (Francis always thought a marketable skill was a good idea), I went back to CUNY Queens for my Master’s degree and a teaching license, and spent another couple of years as Chan The Houseboy.
But by this time, Francis and I were done fighting. We’d talk politics and current events, we’d watch “Seinfeld”, I’d know what was going on at the Maritime Museum and talk on the phone to the old ladies who survived the General Slocum. It was frustrating as hell to be there, but he didn’t make it intolerable. And I guess we both figured it was a temporary situation and we may as well enjoy each other’s company.
Ultimately, it was a temporary situation, but it ended up lasting way, way longer than it should have. Once I was licensed in the Fall of 1992, my mother had a friend who had friend who was a principal of a high school in the Bronx and I had a job. (It happens to be the building that was built over the Hutchinson River Parkway, and I drive under it and thank it for the four months of service credit I got towards my retirement on my way to our house up in Copake Falls, which is as far from the Bronx as you can get in two hours).
The school was not good. For the most part, I didn’t like the people I worked with. I was a Nassau / Queens guy and the Bronx was another country. I was having trouble finding the right tone with the kids in the crappy program they gave me. The building itself made my head hurt. The principal was not the nice guy he had sold himself as to me, and I was not the confident, ready-to-go rookie teacher I had sold myself as to him. It was a terrible situation, but I was determined to see it through. On a Friday afternoon in early October, one of my Sea Cliff roommates tipped me off to a studio apartment for rent in his building in Douglaston. I had a blank check in my hand, but somebody had scooped it up by the time I got there.
The next morning my parents took a beautiful October day to go walk around the Old Westbury Gardens, and I went to see Dr. Rivara about something that hadn’t seemed quite right, and that I had been putting off for a couple of months. Dr. Rivara sent me directly to Dr. Stanley Landau, a urologist in Rockville Centre.
And that afternoon, my parents coming home all spiritually refreshed from their golden afternoon at Old Westbury Gardens, I had to sit them down and tell them I had testicular cancer. My mother told me something later about that day that I’ll never forget. She said, “In all the years I’d known your father, that was the saddest I’ve ever seen him.”
Francis let me stay in his house as long as I needed to be there, and I need to be there three and a half more years.
Because it got to the point where I let myself get fired from the high school in the Bronx for too many days absent, and I didn’t care anymore. It was hellish under ordinary circumstances, and I refused to even entertain the notion of working in a hostile environment in between chemotherapy treatments, which turned out to be a very good decision, as those treatments knocked me on my ass completely.
But by that summer, I was cancer-free. Turns out testicular cancer was well-researched, and one of the most curable forms of cancer, I suppose because historically, most doctors had testicles. I got a job teaching ESL Classes to rich Europeans and Asians milking their student visas at a place called Aspect Language School that operated on the CW Post Campus in Old Brookville. I drove a cab in Port Washington and helped a friend in his cleaning business.
Francis loved hearing the details of all these jobs, because they were outside of his experience and he could learn something new. And now that we had stopped fighting with each other (he and mom still yelled at each other all the time), I could just enjoy him for the character that he was. If Joan were making him a sandwich, he would call from the other room, “make sure you use the nice mustard!” Which is to say, the Grey Poupon and not the French’s. To this day, I personify all food based on its temperament. The nice chicken.
And while once again functioning as Chan the Houseboy around my three poorly-paying jobs, I went on lots of job interviews at Long Island schools because I didn’t want to go back to the city no way no how. And I’d get invited in because my resume and cover letter contained no typos, and I’d have wonderful, positive interview, sometimes two, and they’d send me a follow-up letter saying how much they enjoyed meeting me but in the end they decided to hire the business manager’s nephew. They didn’t really say that, but they may as well have.
So Chan the Houseboy was slowly turning into what my mother called, “one of those sad, old Irish bachelors living with his parents.” (Her confidence was in me was inspiring).
This went on until Francis had seen enough. In the fall of 1995, he spread my resume around among the Good Brothers all over Queens, who would then drop them on principals’ desks all over Queens. People were always ready to help out Francis because they knew he’d help them out, or else he already had.
On the week before Columbus Day, staring down the barrel of another year of living in the attic, I got a call from Bob Spata, principal of Rockaway Beach Junior High School 180. He yelled everything, and that afternoon, this is what he yelled into the phone at me: “You come very highly recommended from Harvey Weintraub! And if you’re good enough for Harvey, you’re good enough for me! Come on in Tuesday morning!”
I had no idea who Harvey Weintraub was. But I came in Tuesday Morning and managed to work around it. It turns out that Harvey was a principal of another school who had taken the resume of a guy looking for an English teacher job from his custodian engineer, then remembered talking to Bob Spata about how he needed an English teacher.
So Francis set me up with the job I kept for the next 25 years, nine in Rockaway (which unlike the Bronx was more my kind of crazy), and 16 years in Ozone Park. You can imagine how happy I was to grab him on a Saturday afternoon early the next spring to drive over and look at my new apartment on the second floor of a house on the side of a six-lane highway in Lynbrook. I was still an old Irish bachelor, but at least I wasn’t living with my parents anymore. That was something. The first thing Francis did was buy himself the best self-propelling lawn mower he could find.
And it was a privilege to hang out with him in those years. No Dad Drama, just Francis Fun. He was always up to something. And if you were in with Francis, every once in a while, it would be your turn for a helicopter ride.
It happened to have come around to my turn again the day after Frank Sinatra died, May 15th, 1998. I remember that because when Francis came over to pick me up at my apartment in Lynbrook, I figured that was something I could lead off with. “Hey, did you hear about Sinatra?”
The whole world was buzzing with tributes and hagiography for one of the biggest stars of the century, and Francis says this: “I never liked him much.”
I nodded and I laughed out loud. Of course he didn’t like him much. In Francis’ World, vocal artistry, or any great talent, didn’t get you off the hook for being an asshole. Why should it?
That morning, Francis was dressed in his Frank Duffy, Granard Associates work uniform: The matching khaki pants and safari-style field coat with a hundred giant pockets among them, the brown baseball cap with the oversize brown sunglasses resting on the brim, and locked up tight out in his Honda Accord, the gigantic army green camera bag with several thousand dollars’ worth of equipment at the ready.
We were heading out of Republic Airport to take photos of a barge coming into New York Harbor from under the Verrazano Bridge (guided by the Sandy Hook Pilots). Francis would always remind you that all the pilots he worked with were Vietnam Vets. As if to say whatever happens, they’ve seen worse.
It was a beautiful Long Island morning, but already getting early-summer warm. Usually he flew from the 34th Street Heliport, so it was an extra treat to fly from Farmingdale straight over Nassau County, where we learned there are people making some serious money in the backyard swimming pool business, then out past Rockaway, where we flew right over my school.
Guests rode up front with the pilot, while Francis worked both windows in the back with his telephoto lens. It’s quite possible that one of the pictures he took that day is still framed on somebody’s office wall somewhere. He literally built an international reputation for being the best maritime aerial photographer in New York, and he could also whip you up a nice little press release and get it planted somewhere if you liked. He was 69 years old and having the time of his life. And if you also liked, he could come to your group with a couple of wheels of slides and give you a presentation on everything from the forgotten islands of New York Harbor to the Victory Ships of WWII.
He’d been known to take pictures hanging half out of his buckled seat, and he actually preferred it if there were no door in his way. In a nutshell, he was freaking crazy up there. When Joan expressed her worry (which she did so well), first Francis would do his patented twisted-mouth expression with a hand waving across your words like they were Camp Lavigerie mosquitos, and then he’d say, ‘Ahhh, go on! I’ll be fiiiiine! Besides, if I fall out, you’ll be a rich old lady. What do you care?”
As I told you before, once we didn’t need anything from each other, Francis and I got to be pretty good friends, and one of the best ways to cement a friendship is to get in some trouble together, whether intentionally or not. On the helicopter ride back from the Verrazano Bridge, it became clear that we were racing a wicked thunderstorm, and that we weren’t completely assured of winning.
Storms come across the city from the west into the Long Island suburbs, and apparently this one had popped up earlier than our pilot had anticipated. By the time we were a mile or so out of Republic, the black-clouded thing had caught up to us, complete with lightning flashing on both sides of the helicopter, and enough turbulence to wipe the smiles off the respective faces of both the veteran war pilot and Frank Duffy, veteran Smug Aerial Photographer.
Fortunately, we landed safely, and Francis and I drove home through the drenching rain with a new story to share. (“We probably shouldn’t tell your mother”). He was quick to tell me that in over a hundred flights, that was as scared as he ever got, and while I could’ve lived without it myself, it was a great honor to have been on the flight that actually frightened Frank Duffy.
I think back on that day because you could say it was one of the last times I saw “Frank” in action. Sharp-eyed boatsman that he was, he could see plainly that at 69, the tide was slowly turning, and the river of his life was getting harder to navigate. My parents’ glory days; Columbus Day weekends at the Mohonk Mountain House, cruises on windjammers in Maine, taking their oldest grandchild to Ireland, fancy nights out in the city, spoiling everyone silly at Christmas, started winding down when Joan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1995.
She had wondered what was wrong with her for about a year. She didn’t have the tremors, but she more and more difficulty in moving her arms and legs, and she had developed what I now know as the “Parkie Shuffle.” We realized that Grandma Scully, who left the house for a nursing home in 1983 and died there at 98 six years later, had walked like that for years and had never had a diagnosis. Mom had been working at Hofstra University as an adjunct professor, and loving every minute of it, but now she could barely walk across the campus.
She got the diagnosis right before she and Francis were supposed to hop across the ocean for another adventure. I think it was Italy. Right before she left, she started taking dopamine. And she was practically jogging when she came back. It was miraculous, but it was also temporary. The level of dopamine would have to keep being increased as the disease progressed, and the disease would eventually win.
So around that time, Francis started looking into a new option for old folks called Life Care, which he no doubt learned about one morning while eating an Entenmann’s sticky bun with the New York Times Sunday Real Estate Section spread out across the table and the other sections spread all over the couch behind him. In a Life Care Community, you put a very large sum of money down as a deposit and you chose between living in a cottage (my parents’ choice) or an independent living apartment. Once you can’t handle that, you move to right into assisted living. From there you go to skilled nursing and from there you slide into the back of a Caddy.
There were two Life Care Communities on Long Island, both in Suffolk County: One all the way at the tip of the East End in Orient called Peconic Landing, and one about five miles south of Port Jefferson called (in a stroke of marketing genius) Jefferson’s Ferry. They kicked the tires on Peconic Landing, but ultimately settled on Jefferson’s Ferry.
Meanwhile, a year and a half after safely landing in a helicopter at Republic Airport, the old Irish Bachelor met a not-as-old Irish and Dutch Cat Lady, and True Love happened. And as you know, it doesn’t happen every day.
Trisha and I are both the youngest child in our families, me of five and she of ten. I was 36 and Trisha was 28, so we were both welcomed warmly and with much relief into each other’s new families. Some of our older brothers and sisters had all taken turns disappointing our parents by “living in sin” before marriage. So we knew what we were getting into (not that we cared very much). So to smooth it over, we announced that we were engaged before we announced that we moving into an apartment together across the street from my parents’ church, Holy Name of Mary.
Being a city teacher, Mom was hipper than Francis. She still never got used to the idea of people living together before they got married, but she realized that to question it would be, in one of her favorite expressions, “like shoveling shit against the tide.” I told her about it first, and she was worried about how Francis was going to take it. Twenty years before, when one of my siblings was “living in sin”, Francis asked me out of nowhere what I thought about it. I was 16 and I told him I thought it was pretty cool. He snarled and said, “I’m sickened by it.”
He inherited his religious traditions directly from his immigrant parents and he never saw a need to change them. But now the old dog didn’t have the same bite.
So this is the way the conversation went down in June of 2000:
Me: “Hey, you know that old apartment building on South Grove Street across from the church?”
Francis: “Sure. What about it?”
Me: “Trisha and I are moving into an apartment there next week.”
Francis (after a very long pause): “Where do you park there?”
Me: You can park overnight in the village lot on Hawthorne.”
Francis got to know and love Trisha. He called all his daughters-in-law, “dear.” We had already established that the McCloskey family nursery and florist business in Rego Park, Queens had been getting an annual order for years from a lady named Joan Duffy in Valley Stream who wanted to make sure there was a nice fresh flower arrangement on the Scully Plot at St. John’s Cemetery next door. Jack’s father, Theodore McCloskey, had actually started the business next to the cemetery in the 1920’s to serve all the good grave-decorating Catholics in the surrounding neighborhood. Theodore also built one of the original houses in the beach community of Point Lookout, three houses up the block from the Town Beach. That’s where Trisha was living when we met.
Francis was never a shopkeeper, and he never had a house on the beach, so he asked his “dear” Trisha lots of questions because he liked to learn about people. And when he learned how far back Jack McCloskey went with Point Lookout, he took some aerial pictures of the town and Jack’s house at various altitudes while out on a Granard Associates gig. When Trisha presented those pictures to her dad, Jack was stopped in his tracks. He said, “Wowww! That’s something!” And Francis didn’t need to do it, of course. Just like when he bought me the signed Mookie Wilson / Bill Buckner Picture, he just said to himself, “I bet you Jack McCloskey would like that.”
At our wedding rehearsal dinner at the Point View Inn, my father stood up to make his toast. He wished us all the best, then he looked straight at me. I had long burned the bridge and left the dopey bastard on the other side. In the eyes of my father, and my friend Francis, I was a fully realized great guy.
And this is what he said: “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”
For me, it was sort of like when Harry Bailey says, “to my brother George. The richest man in town!” That’s it. Nothing to add to that. The movie’s over. Merry Christmas.
It was actually Christmas Day a year and a half later when Trisha and I took possession of the House on Duffy’s Creek. We had looked at other houses, but none of them had creeks, and none of them had the family discount built into the price. Still, Francis sort of tried to talk us out it. I think he was embarrassed at how much work it needed, that he had let it slide too much in between pursuing his passions, driving my mom everywhere, and grabbing naps. To quote mom: “I’m sorry this place is such a wreck. I was sick and your father couldn’t give a good god damn.”
And when he thought something was not your best idea, he’d always say, “ahhh, you don’t wanna do that!” Which Trisha was the first to point out to me is in itself a very odd thing to say. Once my sister’s boyfriend, in his forties at the time, told Francis that he was thinking about getting a new tattoo. Francis said, “ahhh, Ed, you don’t wanna do that!” And Ed looked at him dumbfounded and said, “I’m 45 years old, Mr. Duffy. I’ll do what I want!”
So, despite, “ahhh, you don’t wanna buy this place!”, we did what we wanted, and he was just as happy not to have to deal with real estate people or hire his own lawyer, as they were already late in getting out of the house and into Jefferson’s Ferry because Joan had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier that year. She was wearing a chemotherapy wig at our wedding. It’d been a tough year and he had enough on his plate.
So when we met them for breakfast after church at the Golden Reef Diner in Rockville Centre on Christmas Morning 2001, they were staying at a local hotel so they could have dinner at my sister and brother-in-law’s house, and we were living in their house.
Over time, Jefferson’s Ferry became home for them, and Jedwood Place became home for Trisha. I was fine all along.
I love gardening because my mom taught me to love it when I was very young. I had a designated “diggy spot” in the corner of the backyard. One day I sometime in the 1960’s, I was playing in that very diggy spot when my father came along and said to me, “you know, this little plot here, this is your piece of the Earth. Did you ever think of that? The whole planet Earth, but you’ve got this one little piece.”
Fast-forward forty years, and Francis and I standing in the same yard at a family party that my wife and I are hosting for his 75th birthday. I tell them that he told me when I was five that this was my little piece of the Earth. He said, “Wow, you really took that one to heart, didn’t you.” Yeah. I did.
Unless the Coronavirus or something else kills me before I get the chance, I will probably move upstate to Copake Falls permanently at some point and we will sell this house someday. And when that day comes, I know I can speak for Trisha when I say I will cry and cry and cry and cry some more.
Meanwhile, after everyone was settled, Trisha and I brought our gardening skills out to Jefferson’s Ferry. We planted bulbs and annuals and shrubs and hybrid tea roses all around their cottage. It was a very comfy place, and despite mom’s health, my parents were pretty happy there.
But as so many things that end up defining our lives do, the dementia that stole from Francis every memory I’ve shared with you snuck up on him, and it overwhelmed him and us before we knew it.
I don’t know if he was aware. If he was, he wouldn’t have breathed a word of it. One the phone, my mother would inform me (after telling me every single pain she was experiencing that day and asking me if I got Final Jeopardy), “your father is starting to lose his marbles. He’s forgetting things all the time.” And you think to yourself, OK, he’s an old man, old men forget stuff all the time. And he’d get on the phone and you’d ask him how he was doing and he’d say, “I’m fiiiiine!,” because he’d say that if he had blood gushing out of his head.
2004: Francis’ 75th Birthday in the backyard at Duffy’s Creek
2014: Francis’ 85th Birthday at Duffy’s Creek
2014: Francis’ last visit to the house he bought in 1955
And then he started getting lost. I’m not sure if it was a flying around in a helicopter gig, but he went to the city on some sort of Granard Associates job, and it would be his last. He could not remember how to get back from the city. Somehow he eventually did, but it took him hours and hours and scared the living bejesus out of my mother.
So no more driving to the city. He scared himself enough to decide that on his own. But then he got lost again driving from Jefferson’s Ferry to my sister’s house in Lynbrook. This began a several-month negotiation to get the car away from him, which my mom was actually against, because Francis not being able to drive her around anymore meant the end of the last physical freedom she had.
Then he fell and broke his leg. And that was the end of independent living in the cottage. My parents were relocated to a perfectly nice assisted-living apartment.
And then he fell again, and mom had to be moved to skilled nursing, and when he got out of the hospital, they were living separately.
And a month after their 60th wedding anniversary, my mother was taken to the hospital after being found unresponsive. (As soon as I heard “your mother” and “unresponsive” in the same sentence, I knew it was just about over).
On a Sunday morning in August of 2012, I drove Francis to Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson to see his wife. I spoke to the doctor while he sat with her, so I got to be the first to know that she had pneumonia and she had about a week left.
As she slept, I delivered that bad news to him as gracefully as I could. Then I tried again, with slightly different graceful words. The third time through it landed. He looked at her sadly and he said what I now say every time I have to go to a wake and make somebody feel better:
“No matter how much time you get, you always want more.”
We got seven and a half more years of Francis. There’d be good and not-so-good monthly visits. It was always wonderful to see him, but at the same time it was sort of like visiting a museum every month to find someone had stolen another couple of your favorite paintings off the wall. One year, he’d forget that mom was dead and he’d ask when that happened, the next, he’d forget who she was entirely. One year he’d want to know all about the iphone gadget I was using to show him the old family pictures, the next year he’d sleep in the wheelchair and wouldn’t wake up the entire time. One year, he’d be pleasantly surprised to see that I had brought the books he had written, the next year those books may as well have been copies of the Reader’s Digest. One year, he’d remembered where I lived and what I did, the next he looked right through me with no recognition at all.
But one thing remained constant, right until that last visit on February 15th.
Francis’ eyes would light up when he smiled. I mean literally. The same eyes that could throw angry poison darts at you could smile straight into your soul like morning light sparkling on an Adirondack lake. And everybody from the blue-eyed blonde girl in his English class at William Bryant High School to the girls at the nurse’s station at Jefferson’s Ferry loved that smile.
And when he smiled, it reminded me of everything good. Though he pretty much stopped talking in the year before his death, I could usually count on at least one good Francis smile during our visit, usually directed at the dog.
It made it OK, that smile. It stopped time. I could put it in my pocket, drop it into the gas tank of the car and drive home on it.
You know who doesn’t smile? Trump. As a matter of fact, when I thought of this subject-changing pivot in our narrative, I did some research, painful as it was. If you Google Image “Trump Smile”, the first two subheadings are “transparent” and “smug”, only because “shit eating” wouldn’t make it through the algorithm. He smiles like he just got back from a lynching with the boys and nobody has found the body yet. He smiles like he just got off the phone with Vladimir Putin and they’ve figured out a way to shut the electrical grid down on Election Day. He smiles like somebody just told him about a new way to steal from you.
Furthermore, because of Trump, I believe that reincarnation is one possible afterlife scenario. Born fourteen months after Hitler committed suicide? That’s a creepy coincidence if you ask me. Of course, back in 2015, more than one person told me that any comparison to Hitler was a false equivalence that invalidated my argument.
To those people now: Do you like apples?
Actually, if you want to be Catholic about it instead of Hindu, I believe that the motherfucker is the Devil Incarnate.
Actually, I ran all this by my wife and my son. We’re all Copake Falls Episcopalians at heart now, but I was born to doubt. I asked them if they believed that someone could be born evil. Nature vs. Nurture. One of my favorite unanswerable questions. They said no. I said, well then, could any one of this in this room theoretically become as evil as Trump if we had been raised to be so? That is, if we had been raised by nasty, heartless racists who worshipped the God of Money, who provided us with shortcuts and free passes through every one of life’s milestones, who taught us to lie, to steal, to cheat, to bully, to abuse, to hate, to generally just be an unrepentant, unapologetic smirking asshole who enjoys making people suffer?
They said yes. But I still think he’s Hitler. And the Devil. Because why not? So it came to a point in the conversation when my mother would have said, “I just don’t know anymore, honey,” and I went out in the yard for a cigarette.
As for what this has to do with Francis? Well, he read the New York Times cover to cover every day until he couldn’t anymore. (“You’d think I’d be smarter.”). He could have told you that Trump was Satan in a blue fat suit 50 years ago, when Young Twitler and his white-hooded father were caught discriminating against black and Puerto Rican people in their Brooklyn and Queens housing developments. Francis couldn’t take it when Trump inserted himself into everything in New York City in the 80’s and 90’s. He knew the guy was a self-promoting con man, a stupid one at that, more than likely connected to the mob, without question completely full of shit.
In fact, dopey bastard wasn’t good enough to describe this guy. In Francis-speak, Trump was an “goddamn ignoramus.” A guy who shoots his mouth off but couldn’t find his ass with both hands.
Not the guy you want in charge of a nation of 331 million people when worldwide pandemic time rolls around. Well you can’t blame me. I certainly wasn’t one of the dopey bastards who voted for a career criminal.
I wasn’t one of those gloms.
Because here are three simple assertions that I could easily prove: 1. Hillary Clinton was the most qualified person ever to run for the Presidency. 2. She would have been all over Covid-19 like a mother bear. 3. She would have borne responsibility for every death on her watch.
Even George W. Bush, who used to be our worst President, actually read books instead of holding them upside down for cameras after tear gassing innocent civilians, and when Dubya read a book at his ranch about the Spanish Flu Pandemic on one of his month-long summer vacations, he said by golly it’s almost 100 years. I should probably do something.
People questioned the idea of New York Governor Cuomo becoming a hero for doing nothing more than calmly making sense in his daily press conferences. They say he waited too long to shut everything down and made the hospitals send positive patients back to nursing homes, leading to all those dead grandmas and grandpas.
But Governor Cuomo was following federal guidelines, and certainly did not have access to the intelligence that Trump ignored going all the way back to November, while he was watching Fox News and golfing and holding hate rallies (No, no, he’s not Hitler), not to mention throwing hand grenades on Twitter so people say his name all day.
The federal government is supposed to lead in matters of national security. Even Dubya came around for a photo op on top of the remains of the World Trade Center, even though he let it happen. He didn’t tell Governor Pataki to figure it out and get back to him. At the same moment early this year that Hillary would have been shutting the entire country down and telling us how screwed we’d be if we didn’t cooperate, Trump, the fake president installed by Vladimir Putin for the express purpose of destroying the United States, looked America in the eye with that transparent, smug grin and said the virus was a hoax, said it would go away on its own in the summer, said all his pasty, brainwashed evangelical zombies could get their nails done and their beards trimmed for church on Easter, right before a big, sweaty sit-down brunch at Denny’s.
And now that we have “flattened the curve” in New York, any leader who understands the concept of leadership would say, “Hey, look what they did in New York! The whole country could to do that!” Instead the goddamn ignoramus politicizes quarantines and masks and convinces the zombies that he, and they, are smarter than the scientists. And besides, if an evil Democrat like Andrew Cuomo tells you something is a good idea, you would just be a sheep to follow along.
And here on Long Island, as in too many other places, we got to watch Trumpbilly Covidiots on News 12 waving American flags, berating objective reporters who are giving them publicity in the first place only because they’re a sentient accident on the side of the road, bitching and moaning because masks are an inconvenience and besides, they couldn’t get their mani-pedis done by Korean women, or get served their red meat at Applebee’s by minimum wage brown-skinned workers. Especially when compared to the Black Lives Matter protests that began several weeks later (and should continue indefinitely as long as they have to) when millions of people took to the streets to protest something insidious, immoral and deadly, the willful ignorance and gleeful obnoxiousness of these people complaining about having to make small sacrifices for the larger good make me hate the island and the country I love.
You want to know how stupid some people are? There was a woman at one of these protests; track suit, frosted blonde hair helmet, big glasses, screaming “yoo-wa faaake newzzz!” at the News 12 Reporter. I swear I had seen her before and later it hit me. Women dye their hair all the time, and wasn’t she the one who went to visit Benner’s Farm in Setauket, found out that Minnie the Cow would be hamburgers in a couple of weeks, then came back with her friends to protest against a beloved local farmer who invites children onto his family farm to learn things, carrying a sign that said, “Animal Lives Matter!” while wearing a leather jacket, with a matching leather boots and leather handbag?
You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a glom these days.
And now people are getting sick and dying in record numbers in Florida, in Texas, in Arizona, places where Trumpbilles are a measurable percentage of the population, rather than people who the majority of sensible New Yorkers have learned can usually be stepped around like land mines, except when you tell them they have to wear masks. The emergencies in these places seems like they’re just getting started as I write this, and I’m not the least bit happy that I called this a month ago, or that these dopey bastards are going to kill other peoples’ Francis with their recklessness.
We’ve shown here in New York that relatively simple measures can slow the spread of Covid-19. We’ve also shown how horribly deadly it can be, especially to the elderly. Republican governors refuse to execute those measures, because they are Republicans first, humans second. I wonder how many red hats who lose their parents or grandparents in the next month or two will turn around and call somebody a pussy for wearing a mask at the grocery store? They don’t call ’em deplorables for nothin’.
You could make the case that part of the plan has become to kill people on purpose. Trump (or Hitler, or The Devil) enjoys human suffering, and apparently he’s not alone in this. I could easily prove that assertion, too. (see “babies in cages”). I believe that he does not care how many people die on his watch. It’s almost like a badge of honor to this pig that we have more than a quarter of the world’s Covid-19 deaths. And besides, dead people can’t vote.
So knowing what you know about my father’s underlying health conditions, you know that I cannot state for a fact that this sloppy, chaotic, cynical, repugnantly evil response to a national emergency actually led to his death.
But I can’t not say it, either.
My name is John Duffy. You killed my father. Prepare to get ripped a new one.
For months, when it became clear that the virus was coming this way, Trump did nothing. He had a big assignment to finish and he was going to be graded on it, but he decided he would just fake his way through it ‘cause that’s what his mommy and daddy taught him, along with telling him that everything the blacks do is bad, which is the sole reason why he fired Obama’s pandemic response team. He also had to loot the federal government to give tax breaks to his donors, enablers as bad if not worse than his elected party members. We paid $6000 more in taxes after that. It went straight into the My Pillow Guy’s pocket.
The federal response to the Covid-19 Coronivirus Pandemic of 2020 has been a horrible, horrible shitshow that has led to waves of human suffering that simply did not have to happen. We only get so many years, and of course anyone who hasn’t actually gotten sick or who didn’t see their income disappear overnight this year can’t really complain. But just taking away a year of graduations and baseball games and playgrounds and gym workouts and weddings and birthdays and funerals and visits to grandma and grandpa’s house, just taking away these precious moments of people’s lives, is in itself a tragedy.
Francis’ youngest grandson would have been ready to start his first paying job as a counselor at the Valley Stream community day camp in two weeks. He enjoyed attending the camp for seven years, then volunteered as a junior counselor last summer. If I let myself think about how my son and all those little kids are getting ripped off, I get angrier than a generally happy-go-lucky guy should get. There’s no Camp Barrett because the President of the United States didn’t want to upset the Chinese Government, because he thought they could help him get re-elected. There’s no Camp Barrett because people voted for a fucking game show host to lead the free world.
But you can’t blame it all on one person, even if he is the devil or Hitler reincarnated. The insanity that defines American life right now was, or course, years in the making.
So with the sincerest of apologies to Mr. Rogers, in times of crisis, look for the scumbags.
We could go all the way back to Roger Ailes and Richard Nixon, who perfected the dark art of vilifying your fellow American (not only minorities, but Agnew’s “pointy headed liberal college professors” as well), in order to win votes because they knew that lazy people loved to hate. I could show you where the seeds were first sown of portraying the other party not as “the loyal opposition” but as less than American, and how they co-opted our common flag and turned it into a hate symbol. I could sew Ronald Reagan into this, with his union busting and his welfare queens. And Daddy Bush and Willie Horton. I could weave you through how John McCain let himself get talked into Sarah Palin and inadvertently spawned the Dumb And Racist As Fuck And Proud Of It Movement that swept much of White, Red-State America in 2008, and has now reached feverish levels of scary. But we just don’t have time. I’ve just crossed 20,000 words and you’ve got other stuff to do.
So I’ll stop ranting and just put it as two simple questions : 1) After three and a half chaotic, divisive, exhaustingly cruel years of Trump, how the hell can anybody still support this guy? 2) How could anyone add two and two together and not conclude that the Republican Party is standing on the neck of democracy as they murder your country in broad daylight with the cameras rolling?
As Francis J. Duffy lay dying in the Memory Unit of the Bove Health Center of Jefferson’s ferry in the last week of April, with nothing to be done but to wait for the inevitable, I woke up one morning as I wake up every morning and took a quick look at the apps.
I have friends who like Trump. Not very many, but some. We have enough in common to work around it, I suppose. Still, I cannot fathom why they think what they think. If I asked, they might tell me it has something to do with hating Democrats more. Or they might tell me that they didn’t trust career politicians and they thought a businessman was what we needed in the world’s most powerful political position.
OK, so at the end of this month, I’ll be retired from doing nothing else for the last 25 years but teaching Junior High School English. Since I have some spare time, I’d be happy to intubate you if you need to be placed on a ventilator. I’ve never done it, but look how smart I am.
Or they might tell me that they liked how he speaks his “mind” and “tells it like it is.”
Ok, well, I was a successful and beloved teacher. I regularly told parents that their children were stupid and had no hope. I spoke my mind. I told it like it was. I found that people appreciate that quality in teachers. I also regularly asked parents where they came from and if they were here legally. Because, hey, I pay taxes.
I hope I don’t have to explain that I’m being sarcastic. I know I’m really good at it. I learned it on my father’s knee.
On January 20th, 2017, I made a conscious decision to not to post anything political on Facebook ever again, and I haven’t. Because I can’t get into it with them, because the only purpose would be to change their minds and tragically, I’m not going to.
So I suffer through other people’s posts and I don’t engage. And I showed great restraint that April morning when, as the death toll was closing in on 50,000, as that raging asshole wanted the governors to be nicer to him so he’d be more inclined to help innocent people who were suffocating to death, as I was planning on being on a Zoom call later that day so I could see my dying father’s face, I read a post that said “CAN I GET AN AMEN FOR PRESIDENT TRUMP?”
No. No you can’t.
But this is what I can give you. My father made up a prayer that we’d say every night as kids, right after the Our Father and the Hail Mary. This is how it goes:
God bless us all and keep us well.
God bless all our friends and benefactors.
God help us in our work and play.
God give us a vocation
God give us peace.
I led the participants in the Zoom meeting through the Francis Prayer that morning. My brother had it printed on the back of the mass cards. But there was no wake, no funeral mass. We felt fortunate to have been able to attend the burial at St. John’s eleven days after he the day our father died. A cousin who is an ordained deacon led the service. Around the Scully Plot, we stood in masks, approximately six feet apart from each other, and we said the saddest of goodbyes.
One of the million ways that I am stupid lucky is that I’ve never experienced the helpless feeling of a loved one being the victim of a violent crime. Knock wood and God forbid. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have something like that eat at you every day and I hope and pray that I never do. But I believe that I have a little inkling of what it’s like after this, after dopey bastards created a situation that led to the loss of the greatest of great guys.
Yes, tomorrow would have been my father’s 91st birthday. If you asked him on one of his happier birthdays how it felt to be another year older, he’d say to you, “it beats the alternative.”
We couldn’t go see him today, which really sucks for Mookie, because Mookie hates boats and Jack and I are going to strap the Eddylines to the top of the car, and we’re going to celebrate Father’s Day with a paddle around Stony Brook Harbor, a place where my parents would go to get out of the house when they first moved to Suffolk. It beats the alternative of sitting in the air conditioning, staring at a rectangle and getting angry. We only get so many days. Learning to make the most out of them was Lesson One in The Art of Being Francis.
I talked to the spirit of my father when I was out walking Mookie a couple of evenings ago, along the same creek where my parents would walk the dog they brought home for me fifty years ago because they loved me. I told my old friend that I was writing about him and I asked him what he’d like the world to remember him for most of all.
He told me to tell you that he loved his wife and his children, and that he loved his life, the life that I hope I’ve shown you was a wonderful and beautiful work of art.
Then I asked him what he would say to the people in this broken country.
It’s been another long, inexcusable break from blogging, but for better or worse, A Creek Runs Through It rises from the ashes today. Today, it’s time to go for a good, long walk. If you’re up for it, Mookie and I would be pleased to take you along on a tour of Valley Stream, Long Island, New York, or at least a nice, big chunk of it.
Of course, we’re wired very differently, and our respective life experiences are very different as well, so no doubt Mookie would at some points be putting things in a more positive light for you than I might. But he doesn’t speak English, and he doesn’t blog. So today I’m your somewhat unreliable narrator.
We are eight summers and seven winters into walking our turf together now, Mookie and I, and we’ve interacted with hundreds of our neighbors along the way. And I’ve learned to appreciate his perspective. As a writer named Edward Hoagland wrote about dog training theory, I’ve learned ”to open up myself the possibility of becoming partly a dog.” We even negotiate over which way we’re heading on our walks, since he knows his way around as well as I do. If he could speak English, and he could blog, he’d just look at you with a big smile and say, “Isn’t this great?” But then again, he would say that about every place he’s been.
Futhermore, my dog believes that every person who opens every house or car door as we’re walking by has arrived in his field of vision purposely to see him and tell him what a beautiful big dog he is. He collects people. We’re just walking by your house and you happen to walk out your front door or get out of your car. Mookie stops dead in his tracks, squares his paws, sucks in his gut and targets his prey (you) with his best Labby smile, as if to say, “Hey! Hey you! Here I am! I love you! Wanna say hi waggy waggy?”
He’s very good at it and he scores a “Hey, Buddy!” or a smile back at the very least almost every time. Subsequently, he’s made me like people a little more in general. They’re actually not so bad, most of them.
Mookie deciding whether to bolt over to someone and tackle them, just to say hi.
Yes, my dog loves it here in Valley Stream. So does my son, whose grandparents moved here from Astoria, Queens in 1955, lived for 46 years on a house on a creek and raised five children in it. My son is already planning to send us away someday and buy this house. For the record, that never occurred to me when I was 14. I’m glad he likes it.
Me, I’m the youngest of those five children and right now the I’m guy who lives with his family of three people, three cats and a dog in that same house on that same creek. Do I love living in ValIey Stream? Well, honestly, a lot of the time I’m pretty much awash in ambivalence. I’ve met a lot of great people here, and a couple of soreheads. Plus I suppose it would be impossible not to feel affection for a place where you’ve spent most of fifty-five years and three months.
On the other hand, most of fifty-five years and three months is a very, very long time to live in the same anywhere. I feel like the place where I live could be a lot better if people in general had different priorities. But that’s true of all of Long Island, where people often have some really ass-backwards ideas about what’s important. And I will say this: What strengths Valley Stream does have put it way ahead of a lot of places not only on Long Island, but also in America in general.
So I’m going to take a cue from Mookie and try to keep it positive when I can. We’re going on a big, circuitous, approximately five-mile walk, but we’re going to take our time, and sometimes go back in time. Mookie will need to read his pee mail on the poles and trees, and I’ll be telling you some stories and acting as your tour guide. The goal is to see a place, a town in America in 2018, close up for what it is, as well as what it was and where it seems to be going. Remember, no matter who we happen to meet along the way, Mookie loves them. As for us, you’d probably agree with me that any day is a good day for a walk, and most people are likable enough. So I’d like to show you around our hometown. At its best, it’s a microcosm of the best things about our country. At its worst, maybe not so much. You wanna go for a walk? Come on! Let’s go for a walk!
Terrapin escaping troubled waters for a bit of sun on a rock
Egrets, we have a few. And I try to look out for them.
The walk starts from the house in which I was conceived and raised, and where I live more or less happily today. The house is on a winding street that follows a winding creek, and it’s called Jedwood Place for no good reason. In that house, on a 60 x 100 plot of land abutting tidal waters flowing in and out from Jamaica Bay (home of many interesting birds and one big-ass airport), I have been a baby, a son, a little brother, a snotty teenager, an occasional host of rowdy parties, a smart kid, a troublemaker, a mostly frustrated , bored but sporadically inspired young adult, a lot of peoples’ friend “Duff” who lives down the block from South High, a college student, a guy who’s been in his parents’ house too long, a guy carrying laundry and Ancona pizza on a visit home, a happy and loyal husband, a pleasant enough neighbor, a not-so-awful father and the guy with the big yellow dog.
Two big, fat side notes before we go walking (you can use this time to stretch, maybe tie your shoes. Mookie Dog will wait patiently on the front lawn and sniff the air) :
Note One: There is no other Jedwood Place on the face of the earth. But after 55 years of using the same mailing address, the name “Jedwood” feels as much a part of my name as my name. Yet there is no logical explanation why Mr. William Gibson, the man whose development company built my neighborhood in the early 1950’s and who built most of the neighborhoods of South Valley Stream thirty years before that, would have named a street “Jedwood Place.” The two most frequent citations of “jedwood” that you’ll find on Google refer to a hunting ground in Scotland and “jedwood justice”, which was a practice rooted in 19th Century Maryland wherein a person suspected of a crime was put to death without trial. Neither of these things have anything to do with Jedwood Place. Hopefully, they never will.
Note Two: Jedwood Place is in it’s own little development, bordered by Duffy’s Creek and dead-ending at Valley Stream South High School. Mr. Gibson called it “West Sunbury” but that name never stuck. The other three street names in this little development are Cluett Road, Sanford Court and Virginia Court. A Google search reveals that the man who developed the process of pre-shrinking fabrics known as “sanforization” was named Sanford Lockwood Cluett. Hmmmm. I have no idea if he was a friend of Mr. Gibson, though they were contemporaries, and captains of industry, sort of. I could find no mention of Sanford Cluett, who was born in upstate Troy, NY, hanging out on Long Island, though if I were from Troy I guess I’d jump at the chance. And oddly enough, Sanford Cluett was married to a woman whose maiden name was Camilla Elizabeth Rising, and the land Jedwood Place was built on was once part of the Riesing Farm, a different spelling but coincidental just the same. I have no idea who Virginia was. All this is interesting to me (if not to you, as you and Mookie wait for your promised walk) because Jedwood feels like part of my name, and it’s only because somebody pulled it out of nowhere in 1950.
Such is the randomness of our existence. Creek Street would have worked just as well.
I wanted you to know all this before we go because I ‘ve spent most of my life walking or driving around in circles, starting from and ending at Jedwood Place, of which there is only one on the face of the earth. And over the last seven years, in partnership with our beautiful, loyal, insanely friendly Labrador Retriever, I’ve taken walking in circles starting from Jedwood Place to a whole new level.
During the twenty-five years in which I was between dogs, I had often wished I had a dog just so I could go for a walk without having a destination in mind (and of course because dogs are generally so, so much better company than people). As we’ve established, Mookie’s mission in life is to say hi to as many people as he can, which in his best-case scenario means you rub his face and he stares deeply into your eyes and tries to kiss you. If you were actually here, you’d know that already, and as you may have guessed, I’m somewhat more reserved. But I enjoy all this about him greatly, and hundreds of people we’ve met on our walks have as well.
And so (surprise), having a friendly, good-looking dog and taking long, rambling walks around town is a great way to observe and often meet people, and when you observe and often meet people, sometimes you get talking to them. And when you get talking to people, you get to know the true character of a place. And I can say without any reservation that I (and to an extent, Mookie) know the character of Valley Stream – at least the south half of it – better than anyone, particularly anyone who works at Money Magazine.
Why Money Magazine? Well, apparently, somebody at Money Magazine really likes Valley Stream, so much so that earlier this year Money Magazine voted it the Best Place To Live in New York State. For heaven’s sake why? Well, this is what they said:
First settled by Scottish immigrants in 1834, Valley Stream is a Nassau County village that attracts residents with a reputation of being “neat, clean and safe”. The location is a big draw—it’s just 35 minutes from Manhattan, near two major highway arteries, and served by the Long Island Railroad. Snapple originated in Valley Stream, which also boasts several historic colonial sites, a diverse population, and a close-knit suburban community.
So, to use a buzz phrase that my boss loves, “let’s unpack that.”
First of all, Snapple. Really? What the hell is Snapple doing in three sentences of copy about Valley Stream being the best place to live in New York State? And I believe we have one colonial site. This is why I mostly avoid magazines.
Second of all, I’m very aware of the “major highway arteries” and the Long Island Railroad, thank you so much, as well as being five miles from JFK Airport. It’s often very noisy around here. It’s not “Manhattan noisy”, or even “Queens noisy”. You can still hear the birds. There still are occasional moments of relative quiet. But if you listen for it, there’s almost always a dull roar of the motor noise of trains, plains, automobiles and leaf blowers emanating from our surroundings, and I’m not entirely sure that this isn’t all slowly driving me insane.
Third of all, neat, clean and safe. These are just about the most relative terms you could string together to describe a place. Your idea and my idea of the threshold for earning those adjectives could be very similar or very different, depending on how much you are affected by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
We’ll get to “clean” and “neat” when we get walking. (“Yawwwnnn!!!,” says Mookie). First, let’s talk about “safe”. “Safe” is ultimately what makes or breaks the reputation of a place. But again, it’s completely relative. Do I feel “safe” walking with Mookie at night through Valley Stream? Well, yeah, ‘cause we’re the scariest looking two guys out there if you’re up to something, so that’s a moot point. Do I feel safe if my 14-year old son or my wife is out after dark? Of course not, because I love them and I worry about them and I want to be with them all the time so I know where they are, but that would be true wherever we lived. That’s got nothing to do with Valley Stream.
Less than a mile to my west is Green Acres Mall, which has grown like an ink stain since it was built in the 1950’s. It has, over the years, fostered a reputation as being a slightly dangerous, crime-ridden place. So much so that the first neighborhood we’re going to visit on our walk changed it’s name from “Green Acres” to “Mill Brook” in the early 1980’s to distinguish itself from the shopping mall, a decision that at the time smacked of racism, because many of the shoppers at the mall are people of color from neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. This is ironic in retrospect since all the ethnic groups that people in Green Acres were afraid of are now raising families and planting flowers in front of the houses they own in Mill Brook.
Within the last three years, Green Acres applied for and received a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, otherwise known as a big fat tax break) from the Town of Hempstead to expand yet again. Part of their strategy for legally cheating on taxes and stealing money from people in Valley Stream was to sell Green Acres as a “tourist attraction”, since more than 50% of the customer base comes from outside Nassau County. The mall is literally right on the New York City border. And so, when people on Valley Stream social media pages want to make snide comments about people from the city, they call them tourists. Isn’t that clever?
Statistically, I don’t know how true the perception of Green Acres Mall being unsafe is or ever was. But I can tell you this: The creek amplifies noise. All creeks do. It’s a property of water. If there’s a particularly egregious crime at the mall (I’d say an average of between 6-10 times a year depending on how hot the summer is and how much the giant flat-screen TV’s are going for on Black Friday) you’ll know about it at Duffy’s Creek. You’ll hear the angry roar of helicopters circling overhead (followed seconds later by the angry roar of people on the Valley Stream News Facebook page reporting helicopters circling overhead), and the apocalyptic sirens from emergency vehicles racing down Sunrise Highway and Mill Road.
At times like these, Green Acres is less a shopping mall than an encroaching monster that wants to eat my quality of life. Of course, it would certainly be LESS safe here if there WERE no circling helicopters and emergency vehicles ready to respond in minutes to intervene in whatever nonsense is going down. We pay some of the highest property taxes in the country for that sort of thing. And Roosevelt Field, the bigger shopping mall to the east bordered by the much more wealthy community of Garden City, makes it into Newsday for spectacularly stupid crimes as much as Green Acres does.
And the other 99% of the time, when there are no egregious crimes being committed, it’s just a shopping mall. And me, I hate shopping malls. They’re gross. I like forests. And lakes. But if you’re OK with shopping malls, go ahead and visit Green Acres Mall sometime. Don’t worry. It’s plenty safe. It’s a tourist attraction. Go there and waste your money.
Meanwhile, now that we’ve established that “safe” is an illusion that means absolutely nothing no matter where you live, let’s get to that walk. As you look across the street from my house, the first thing you will say is “What the…?” And then you will smile your dopiest smile, because you’ve just had your first look at the house of my longtime neighbor and friend John and his wife Amanda who live across the street. John and I disagree vehemently on politics, so we never ever talk about it when we see each other. However, I have great respect for and truly enjoy his execution of the American rights and traditions that allow one to do whatever the hell one wants to one’s house within local zoning regulations. Plus he does our taxes, and we always do pretty well. So I have no problem living across the street from a house that has been remodeled to resemble a giant log cabin.
Thanks to my neighbor John for giving me permission to share this view of his house from my house.
Yeah. That’s right. A giant log cabin. AND, there are two “showcases” in the front of the house. In one of those showcases you’ll see a life-size gorilla statue, along with a life-size guy who looks a little like John himself sitting in a chair in a white suit and a Panama hat, with a parrot on his shoulder, a totem pole and a monkey scaling a tree behind him. In the other showcase you’ll see a bear, several small hippos and a family of prairie dogs. You’ll also notice the two grazing bison attached to the second floor balcony and the almost life-sized plastic representation of a Tennessee Walking Horse mounted on the fence. Completing the look is a stone wall in the corner of the property with a faux blue pond made of concrete, engraved with various animal drawings, “flowing” out to the sidewalk.
I’ve seen a lot of people take pictures of John’s house. Selfies, mostly. I find it extremely amusing. And I know he doesn’t give a flying rat what anyone thinks of his log cabin, which another reason I like him. And since we have Valley Stream South High School up at the top of the dead-end of Jedwood Place, we have lots of pedestrian and vehicle traffic passing by our houses – and lots of very loud teenagers – when school is open. As a matter of fact, you literally can’t get out of our driveway between 7:15 and 7:40 a.m. on school days as the street is one long convoy of cars dropping those same teenagers off at school, most of whom live no more than a mile away. My friends all walked to school here, even the ones who lived two miles away. Most of them are still alive. Just sayin.’
Valley Stream South High School, where we regularly trespass and occasionally get off the leash to go get it. The new football field really pisses us off
As we set out on our five-mile walk (did I mention that?) we have three possible trails: We can walk towards Valley Stream South High School, my alma mater, where we don’t give damn about trespassing on the field because of the school taxes we pay (and Mookie has lots of friends in high places anyway). They’re currently transforming the South football field from natural to artificial turf, which Mookie and I, along with the sandpipers, agree is a really stupid idea, but we had no say in it at all. Walking up that way, we might see my next-door neighbor, originally from the Philippines, who Mookie has loved since he was a puppy, and how could you not? We might see Raffi, who doesn’t like Mookie sniffing at him, but who feeds me really good noodle and pastry stuff after Ramadan so I give him jars of homemade bread and butter pickles on my summer vacation. (All my other friendly neighbors get them. I don’t concern myself with the unfriendly ones, and Mookie knows not to stop in front of their houses).
We might see Bob walking his dog Eli the other way and we might say something about the Mets. One family of Mookie’s best friends moved to Florida last year and we both miss them. But he’s recently worn some other people down at the end of the street who now say hi to him by name. Up at the high school soccer field, Mookie might get to chase a ball off the leash if no one is around, but if it’s Sunday, they’ll be twenty gentleman of various ages, all in way, way better shape than I am, playing The Beautiful Game like their lives depended on it. When school is open, Mookie collects high school students. They’re not so bad, even with the littering. I digress.
If we take trail #2 and walk up Cluett, we’ll see a house that belongs to some wonderful neighbors of ours that is currently being renovated and has been raised way high off the ground to survive the next big hurricane. From what I can see, I like their chances. Mookie will check to see if his very best friend Vacco is relaxing in the hammock that hangs from the walls of his spotless garage, and if so will have to charge at him and wag his tail maniacally for a face rub while Vacco and I talk about our solar panels.
But we’re going to take trail #3 and walk up Jedwood towards Mill Road and around the Creek, into Mill Brook, which I still call Green Acres. There’s a story I want to tell you about the path on the other side. Walking up to the corner, we’ll pass about twenty houses, and Mookie has friends in at eight of them. He’s working on the other twelve.
The Mill Brook community (when it was Green Acres) used to be connected to Jedwood via a pedestrian bridge over Duffy’s Creek (called, not surprisingly, “the Bridge”) but it was deemed unsafe after a kid got stabbed there (long, stupid story) and it was demolished, meaning most kids from Mill Brook now either walk or get a ride down Jedwood to get to school. So once upon a time, you, me and Mookie could’ve walked to the footpath on other side of Duffy’s Creek from the high school without going to Mill Road and passing the stores. And if the bridge were there, I could tell you about all the bottles of cheap beer and other commodities that were consumed over the years by generations of Valley Stream South students. But it isn’t. So I won’t.
Instead we have to make our way past the insane little white dog that occasionally runs out into traffic to chase after us at the corner of Jedwood and Mill, and walk north past the stores.
Here’s the good news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. There’s a dry cleaner, a deli, a pizza place which I don’t like but my son does, a Chinese take-out that everybody likes, and deli that’s really a bodega, which is different from a deli but I don’t have the patience to explain to you why that is if you don’t already know. There is a certain convenience in having these things in your neighborhood. I guess that makes them convenience stores.
Here’s the bad news about the row of stores at the corner of Jedwood Place and Mill Road. 1) It has not been updated since 1950. It’s shabby and run-down looking and there is 68 years of gum embedded in the sidewalk. They use the steel doors use that you see in the picture when they’re closed, which makes the neighborhood look worse than it is, but I suppose it’s better than broken plate glass, which would do the same. 2) Nassau County owns a strip of land next to the row of stores that abuts Duffy’s Creek. They have not cleaned this area in my lifetime. It’s a wasteland of weeds, dead trees and garbage, as disgusting as anything you’ll ever see in a place where the median family income is $85,00 a year. It screams, for all the world to hear, that here in Southwest Nassau County, we just don’t give a fuck. The water spilling from the culvert under Mill Road into the creek smells like death, but more about that later, too. 3) There is a very large laundromat between the deli and the pizza place and people double park in front of it all the time. 4) The first store was a dive bar for most of my life – originally called “The Sportsman’s Rendezvous” – but has become a Nail Salon. It is one of approximately 500 nail salons in a five-mile radius. I never hung out in the dive bar, but I’m sure there were a lot less nefarious things going on in the Sportsman’s Rendezvous than there are in the Nail Salon. But that’s just me. 5) The Garbage.
The Path along the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek, owned by the Town of Hempstead.
The spillway under Mill Road, where the “fresh” water from Hendrickson Lake and Mill Pond meets the salt water from Jamaica Bay at Diuffy’s Creek,
Mill Pond Park, Village Of Valley Stream
Mill Pond Park, Village Of Valley Stream. They tell me they can’t do much about the pond scum, and I’ve met pond scum, so I get that.
The toxic wasteland is owned by Nassau County. If you don’t believe that it is a toxic wasteland, I’d invite you to go take a whiff.
The amount of garbage on the street in and around Jedwood Place, most of it originating from the row of stores, and the very loud teenagers from the high school, whom Mookie loves and who visit those stores regularly, would have cost Valley Stream our Money Magazine “Best Place To Live in New York” designation if Money Magazine had known about it. I regularly feel like the Crying Indian when I walk around and see all the garbage that kids drop on the street (and that people throw out of their car windows after dropping their kids off at the high school. Don’t worry. I see you). There was a big push back in the 70’s to get people to stop littering, because nobody really wanted to make the Indian cry. But somehow, somewhere along the line, this morphed into the idea that people are paid to pick up after you. And who the hell is the Crying Indian? If you litter on Jedwood Place, ultimately, I pick up after you for free, because I get to the point where I can’t look at it anymore. People walk around with a bottle of something and a magic rectangle everywhere they go but somehow carrying a wrapper, or that now empty bottle of something, to the next garbage can is far too great a burden. This is a Valley Stream problem and a Long Island problem in general. We spent a week in Copake, NY and a week in Saranac Lake, NY this summer. There are fewer people in these places, of course, but none of them throw their fucking garbage in the street. So it’s not like a ratio or anything. People on Long Island – though I like many of them, and Mookie loves all of them – are pigs. There, I said it.
But Mookie, of course, doesn’t mind at all. He’s more interested in smells and finding people to say hi to than he is in aesthetics. This is one part of me that refuses to become partly a dog.
So we’re past the stores now, we’ve checked for terrapin turtles sunning themselves on the rocks next to the horrible-smelling spillway (sometimes we see our friend Steve who works at the high school looking for turtles, too). We’re around to the Right Bank of Duffy’s Creek, going down the path that runs behind the backyards in the “new” section of Mill Brook. We could have gone straight and gone through “Old Green Acres” on the streets north of Flower Road, which was the part of the development built in 1939 and features some very nice tudors and brick colonials that help keep the property value up on our little wooden box, but I would rather show you this path. I have my reasons.
My sister Mary Frances on The Path, around 1958
The same spot in 2018
Unlike much of Valley Stream, the path along Duffy’s Creek -which like Jedwood Place is outside the boundaries of the Village of Valley Stream and within the jurisdiction of the Town of Hempstead – looks pretty much the same as it did when I was a kid, but with one big difference: There’s less of it. The creek has been eroding the path for as long as they’ve been matched together. The hard surface of the path is just about gone in most places. Tall Phragmites (what my father referred to as “woozy-woozies” when he had small children and even when he didn’t) block your view of the water through most of it, except where one guy takes it upon himself to cut them all down with one of his many, many power tools so he can see the creek from his deck, which happens to be directly across the water from our house. It’s a reasonably nice place to walk your dog, as Mookie can attest. But it’s supposed to be a lot nicer. And I can prove that with a 123 page pdf file available online from the New York State Office of Storm Recovery, otherwise known as “New York Rising.”
South Valley Stream got whacked pretty well by Hurricane Sandy (or “Superstorm Sandy” if you insist, but please don’t). Being just south of Sunrise Highway, we were on the northern end of the area that got flooded. Towns south of us, East Rockaway, Oceanside and Long Beach in particular, were whacked much, much more devastatingly. (Not sure if anybody at FEMA uses the term, “whacked” to describe what happened, but I’m going with it).
About a year and a half after Hurricane Sandy surrounded our house in four feet of tidal surge on the night of October 29th, 2012, I heard about a meeting, the first in a series of meetings, at the Forest Road School, where the Mill Brook Civic Association would be taking public comments on how to spend the $3 Million in New York Rising Storm Recovery money that was apportioned to South Valley Stream. I just wanted to make sure they weren’t planning to build concrete retaining walls along my creek and declare it as a permanent open sewer, because that would really piss off the egrets. (I have a few). I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was not the plan.
New York State contracted with the Louis Berger Group as consultants to advise individual communities on how to spend the money they were getting through New York Rising. The Louis Berger Group (I saw them at the Peppermint Lounge in ’83) would work with existing community organizations to formulate and document a plan of action. The exiting community organization here was (and is) the Mill Brook Civic Association, even though Mill Brook is only about one-third of South Valley Stream. Gibson used to have a civic association but it doesn’t anymore because the old one died and I haven’t had the time to start the new one, and neither has Sean Lally.
I was wary of what the folks in the Mill Brook Civic Association were up to, so I kept haunting their meetings. Again, I was pleasantly surprised by the plan, officially published in March of 2014. Through going to the meetings, I got to know a wonderful gentleman who was leading the Louis Berger Group contingent for the project, a Dutch fellow by the name of Niek, or Neiyk. No matter. We got talking about birds. I told him that when I first moved back to my childhood home here, I documented the different bird species we saw.
I had always noticed the variety of birds around here as a kid, but I never got all citizen science about it until I was a homeowner, and they were MY birds. Way back then in 2002 we still had two gigantic maple trees out front and two Bradford pears in the back that were allowed to get out of control before our arrival, and they were all threatening to kill the house, so we eventually had to have them taken down. (We have replaced them, and then some, but trees take time). There were several giant Eastern White Pines in the neighborhood that have since been taken down or blown over in storms. Sadly, a beautiful oak tree on my next door neighbors’ property (once my grandmother’s), a tree that was probably planted along the creek by the Reising Farm owners before the houses were built, had to come down just this summer.
Big trees mean lots of birds, of course. And fewer trees mean fewer birds. And who doesn’t like birds? But sometimes where little wooden boxes are jammed together in 60 x 100 plots, you have to take down big trees, because they might kill you. And when you lose the trees, you lose the birds, who I’m sure don’t understand what the hell anyone would have against a big tree. I used to say that Duffy’s Creek was a great place to be a bird. Sadly, it’s come to the point, especially after losing the oak tree this summer, that if I were a bird, I’d probably blow this hot dog stand and move upstate.
But back when Trisha and I moved in, and we still had lots of big trees, filling up the bird feeders would get you twenty cardinals at sunset on a snowy afternoon. Waves of warblers and other migrant songbirds stopped in our trees in the spring and fall. We still have an impressive variety of waterfowl, especially in fall and winter, but every year the creek is neglected, it gets a little less populated. But in a year or so upon moving back to Jedwood Place in back in 2002, I had identified close to a hundred different species of birds in our yard and on our creek. Most of them I will never see here again because of the whole tree thing, but this little tidbit was still very impressive to Niek, or Neiyk, who had himself grown up in the Netherlands along a river (I knew that without him telling me) and was still something of a bird guy himself. At the meeting where the Louis Berger Group were unveiling the New York Rising plan for South Valley Stream, he told me that I should send him a list of those birds, and so I did.
The plan that Niek, or Nieyk and the Louis Berger Group put together was a beautiful thing. Landscaping and naturalizing the path, planting lots of trees, replacing the sewer pipes with a wetland filtration system (called a “bioswale”) that would clean the water over time. And to top it off, South Valley Stream was awarded another $3 million from New York State in “Race To The Top” money (gag me) for showing that the plan could, among other things, help bring back the birds on the list I sent to Neik, or Nieyk, who gave me some of the credit for the $3 million when nobody else did, which he didn’t have to do because all I did was count birds, but I appreciated it. I met some great people through stalking the Mill Brook Civic Association. They made me feel very optomistic about living here.
Now you may recall, a couple of paragraphs back, that this plan was published in 2014. The Town of Hempstead received the money from the State of New York to implement the plan. They’re sitting on $6 million as far as I know. And as you may have guessed from our walk today, they haven’t done shit yet, besides stick some flags in the ground and mow the grass.
But I’m hopeful. And our walk continues.
We’re around on the other side of the creek now, and in this section, past the path, there are house on both sides of the creek. There’s a style of house here, and on Rosedale Road where we emerge at Hoeffner’s Gas station on the city line (opened when the whole area was still Hoeffner’s Farm) and in the neighborhood on the other side of South High School from Jedwood, which I can only describe as the ”three little window houses”. They’re ranches with attached garages and a room jutting out towards the street with three ridiculously small windows hung in a parallel line at the top of the wall. Having been in those houses, I can tell you they’re nice from the inside. Big open floor plans and all that. They’re just kind of goofy looking from the outside.
The “Lilco Woods”
I can’t say anything if you won’t let me in to see anything.
Temple Hillel, Rosedale Road
A Three Little Window House
Hoeffner’s Gas Station. The New York City Line is less than 500 feet from here.
Which brings us to two “when I was a kid” observations that are true of this neighborhood and the rest of the places we’ll pass on our walk.
Observation #1: Every house on every street used to look like every other house on that street. That’s not quite as true anymore, as people have remodeled, and in some cases created great Taj Mahal-like structures from the little ranches and capes they started out with. This is more true in Mill Brook / Green Acres and the “North Woodmere” section of South Valley Stream. A lot of Mr. Gibson’s streets look structurally as they did 100 years ago. As an architecture fan, I find some of the remodels classy and sharp, and others a violent assault on my senses. But, like John’s Log Cabin, I respect and admire people for making these boxes into their own personal statements to the world. It’s a very American thing to do. We haven’t built a Taj Mahal, but we’ve planted a lot of flowers and trees. That’s a human thing to do.
Observation #2: When I was a lad here, the community of Green Acres, as well as the development along Rosedale Road up into North Woodmere, was a primarily Jewish neighborhood. I personally went to at least five bar and bas mitzvahs. Had a great time, too, as I remember. The majority of Valley Streamers were of Italian, Jewish, German and Irish descent, like my parents, one-generation removed from apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens, just like the new folks moving in these days. People of color lived across the City Line (at the time even further, the color line was really Brookville Boulevard in Rosedale, Queens) and that’s the way it was. As a matter of fact, you should read this New York Times story from 1979 and some 2010 census statistics before we go on, so as you continue on our walk up into the heart Valley Stream, you can see how far we’ve come, and why there’s really no such thing here as an anyone’s neighborhood anymore, and that’s a good thing:
VALLEY STREAM, L.I., Aug. 15 – A crude wooden cross was set afire last night on the front lawn of a house that a black family moved into here last week.
The cross was discovered at 10:15 P.M. by Inga Grant, the mother of seven children, who had moved into the two‐story, four‐bedroom colonial house from Rego Park, Queens, according to the Nassau County police.
They said the family had received obscene telephone calls and that windows had been broken while it was moving into the house, at 101 Woodlawn Avenue, in this South Shore village that neighbors said was predominantly white.
A real‐estate agent who had an exclusive listing on the house for several months, but did not sell it to Mrs. Grant, said today that he had been receiving obscene and threatening phone calls since Aug. 1, when the sale, reported at “upward of $70,000,” was closed.
Few of the neighbors gathered near the house today expressed sympathy for the Grants. And some of them said there had been neighborhood speculation that the sale was an attempt at blockbusting that is, inducing homeowners to sell quickly by creating the fear that purchases of homes by members of a minority group will cause a loss in value.
Now here’s the Wiki for the latest demographics of South Valley Stream, not including most of the Village of Valley Stream or North Valley Stream, which for the record are equally or more diverse. The CDP is my little “census designated place”, which is relatively small in area compared to everything that’s called “Valley Stream”. It’s a little confusing, I understand:
As of the census of 2010, there were 5,962 people, 1,969 households, and 1,554 families residing in the CDP. The population density was 6,415.1 per square mile. (Holy crap). There were 2,045 housing units at an average density of 2,326.9/sq mi. The racial makeup of the CDP was 51.90% White, 23.10% African American, 0.07% Native American, 18.10% Asian, 0.00% Pacific Islander, 4.40% from other races, and 2.20% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.80% of the population.
As for the “loss of value” that haunted the dreams of Woodlawn Avenue residents 29 years ago (not all of them, of course), you might be interested to know that the average price of a house in my neighborhood today is $462,000 big ones. We just do that to keep the riff-raff out.
And I suspect, based on the unscientific method of walking around with my dog, that the 2020 census will show more even slices of pie among white, African American Hispanic or Latino and Asian. And more and more, there’s an overlap among them all. And, not for nothin’, half of us have college diplomas. So fuck you.
Sorry, I didn’t mean that. We’re just a little defensive here sometimes. It’s because of Rockville Centre and Hewlett.
Statistically speaking, concepts of race and ethnicity could someday disappear altogether in a place like Valley Stream, which is pretty noteworthy considering the attitudes of 1979, when I was in 10th grade at Italian-Jewish-Irish South High School and knew those cross burners personally, or at least their families. And, while it’s easy to say this for a white guy, and I try to be aware of the systemic, institutionalized racism that people darker than myself have to put up with all the time no matter how enlightened their community supposedly is, I believe that in some ways, we’re almost there. As people get to know their neighbors, and share the common spaces, they see each other’s colors less and less. Unless they’re beyond hope, and most of the people who were beyond hope left here years ago. Valley Stream is not perfect in this regard, but it’s become a pretty good place to walk around in whatever color skin you happened to have been born wearing.
Let’s keep walking.
We’re on Rosedale Road, which for no good reason becomes Brookfield Road when it intersects Hungry Harbor Road, which was actually named for people who were hungry. Squatters, I’m told. We’re passing a fenced-off two acres or so of woods that belongs to Long Island American Water. There’s a good story behind this little piece of woods that you should say something if you see something in, even though you can’t go in it, but I’ve already told that story in a previous blog post: https://duffyscreek.com/2016/08/07/taking-a-walk-an-abridged-10000-year-history-of-south-valley-stream and we’re crossing Mill Road again, heading up Dubois Avenue, where Du Boys used to hang out in front of the candy store and the deli at Gibson Station.
Yes, almost forty years ago, I was one of the boys. A scrawny, tag-along boy but a Verified Gibson Rat just the same. Where the Nail Salon is now (one of the five-hundred) was once Jimmy and Ronny Duffy’s “Candy Store”, which as anyone from Long Island would know is a place where you could buy candy, newspapers, magazines, greeting cards, Whiffle Bats and Spalding Balls and odd stuff hanging around like flyswatters, condoms and birthday cake candles. There was also be the obligatory pinball tables, and later video games, in the back of the store, eager to swallow the quarters of local idiots. I got pretty good at Asteroids, but never could handle Defender.
Jimmy was Ronny’s father, and their names weren’t actually Duffy. They were using Jimmy’s wife’s maiden name to avoid something or somebody, but I didn’t care. They treated me and the rest of the knuckleheads who hung around the store like Italian family. Still, in retrospect, I regard every second hanging around Gibson Station as a colossal waste of time. I guess I must have learned something from the experience, but I have no idea what. Maybe how to act more Italian, but I could never pull it off. Oh, well.
Today my favorite thing about Gibson Station (besides the fact that it is frozen in time and could be easily used for the “1979” scenes of my biopic) are the guys who make Mookie and I our bacon and egg breakfast at the Cold Cut Express. Not being invited inside, Mookie stays tied up to a parking meter no one ever feeds (shhh!!!) and usually makes at least one new friend in the time it takes to scramble two eggs. As most people in this line of work now, the guys at the Cod Cut Express are immigrants from somewhere and they work and they work and they work. They are gentleman who treat their often annoying customers with respect and I appreciate them being there, as the only time I see them is when I’m not working.
And one of these days, I have to check out Meli Melo, which is the Cajun-Creole restaurant that opened where Goldie’s, an Italian Restaurant, used to be. (“A Taste of Louisiana and Haiti”) Mookie and I had a nice conversation one morning with a guy who was working on the remodel for a long, long time. (They’d have to put the smiling clown from the Goldie’s sign back up to shoot those 1979 scenes). When Goldie’s was empty, I had a fun little dream about buying a winning lotto ticket at the Cold Cut Express and opening “Duffy’s At The Station”, but I guess now it’s too late, and I wish Meli Melo nothing but success. We’re walking north up Dubois Ave. now, leaving Du Boys at the Cold Cut Express and Du New Boys at Meli Melo to keep chasing their American dreams.
On the left side of the street are some beautiful colonial houses with big front porches that predate Mr. Gibson. Starting on the right side of Dubois and heading south are Mr. Gibson’s 1920’s era, rather unique Pointy Houses.
As I walk through all these neighborhoods, I’m privately amused when I consider that I’ve been inside at least one example of each style of house, even though the people who lived in those houses when I visited are long gone, and the people who live there now have no idea I’ve been in their houses. I still keep in touch with lots of people from high school, and they live all over, and I pass their childhood houses all the time. The kids who lived in this neighborhood either went to William L. Buck or Brooklyn Avenue School. I went to Robert W. Carbonaro, which is on back on Hungry Harbor Road around the corner from Jedwood Place.
Brooklyn Avenue is a beautiful old building from the 1920’s. Buck and Carbonaro are identical buildings, 1960’s Splanch Style, approximately two miles away from each other, at the southwest and northeast polar ends of Mookie’s turf. When our son had some accumulated trouble at Carbonaro in fourth grade, he went in to the BOCES system for a year, and then we insisted that he go back to his home district. This story is, of course, a lot more involved than what I’m telling you.
There was a new principal at Carbonaro at the time. My personal interactions with him were both pleasant and nauseating. Overall, the place seemed a bit on edge. We met some great people there, and some maybe not so much. I myself spent seven wonderfully happy years at Carbonaro from 1968 to 1975. As for our son, the district people didn’t want him to go back to Carbonaro and agreed to enroll him at Buck. That summer, the principal at Buck got in touch with me to invite my son in to look over the building (and teach him all about the new geothermal heating and cooling system that had just been installed for free by New York State) and introduce him to his teacher. They were nothing but kind. The school was a happy place. And our son ended up having his best year in elementary school.
So now every time Mookie and I walk past Carbonaro (pretty much every day) I feel a little twinge of betrayal mixed in with the nostalgia. And every time we walk past Buck, which is different but looks almost exactly the same, I’m reminded to keep an open mind, and have some faith that things have away of working themselves out.
Meanwhile, I could take you through some really drop-dead gorgeous neighborhoods at this point, the nicest streets in South Valley Stream, between Rockaway Avenue and Forest and Brooklyn Avenues, pre-Gibson colonials with big front porches set back from the street on huge plots of land with lots of big trees that don’t want to kill anyone. There are also neighborhoods like this in Central and North Valley Stream – particularly Westwood on the border of Malverne – but we’re not going that far today, because that’s generally outside of our walking turf and I’m looking down the barrel of 8,000 words already.
We’re going straight up Rockaway Avenue, across Sunrise Highway. In short, we’re going to town. You get to see the sights, visit our fine stores and restaurants. And you get to meet David Sabatino.
Mookie’s psyched. He slipped David the tongue once when he kissed him.
First we have to wind our way along the part of Rockaway south of the highway, where you’ll pass Wondarama, where they’ve been fixing flats and replacing batteries for 45 years or so. Across the street is Temple Beth Shalom. There is a small Hasidic community that lives in some of the houses around the temple. They enjoy seeing Mookie and I out walking with them on Saturday mornings. He wags his tail for them.
Right next door to the temple are two warehouse buildings, the second a monstrosity of contemporary glass in your face architecture, which went up in the last three years. A company called International that distributes many, many bottles of booze owns both buildings. And if you say, “well, gosh, those buildings are nice for warehouses and all but they’re totally too big and out of character for the area,” Then I’d agree with you and watch your reaction when we come up on the Sun Valley Apartment Building.
Yes, folks, this is the future of Valley Stream. Five stories, 72 modern squirrel cages with Blink Fitness on the ground floor and a tennis court on the roof where in four years I have yet to see a tennis ball in flight when I happen to look up. It may yet happen.
People want to live here. They like the schools, and the parks. They even like the mall. The population is exploding. Since you’re not getting our little wooden box for under $400,000, housing is a problem. Plus, in another five years or so, the Long Island Rail Road will have burrowed through to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, finally creating direct access from Long Island train stations to the East Side of Manhattan, and as Money Magazine breathlessly told you, we could be on the next train west from Valley Stream and jostling our way through Penn Station in 35 minutes. It’s great, isn’t it? And now you can add in a couple of thousand people who would like to be jostling through Grand Central in 45 minutes, and the end result is apartment buildings, and lots of ‘em.
It’s a tide you just can’t fight. And you can take that from an experienced kayaker and worry wart. To suggest it’s “out of character” for a suburban “bedroom community” to have buildings with 74 apartments on a commercial corner is a shortsighted notion and completely out of touch with reality. This was something I had to learn. When Sun Valley was going up (and up and up) I bitched and moaned to the Deputy Mayor, a wonderful fellow who excels at debate, mostly about what I saw as the horrible aesthetics of the building. A lot of people who were watching this thing go up described it in terms of the Bronx House of Detention.
Deputy Mayor Vincent Grasso said, “Just wait until it’s done.” The Village didn’t sign off on the CO until the development company, which was making it’s first foray into Nassau County after a successfully putting people in cages in Queens and Brooklyn for years, made a series of aesthetic improvements to the building’s exterior. It was pretty amazing to me how just a clean buttress line along the top of the building and two-toned brick made it seem less like a tenement. As giant apartment buildings go, I’ve seen worse. But people still complain about it, as they are complaining about several other apartment buildings either planned or currently rising like steel Godzillas around town.
You want to take these folks at their word, that it’s overcrowding they are most concerned about. But Lynbrook and Rockville Centre, the next two towns down the highway, considered more affluent than Valley Stream, have always had lots of apartment buildings (albeit somewhat lower to the ground) mixed in with the beautiful houses, with more going up as we speak. And the whole damn Island is choked with people and cars already. So unfortunately, I think the overcrowding argument is a just a cover.
There is a mild strain of Trumpanzeeism, “more white, more right” thinking that still pervades, bubbling under the surface of Valley Stream, despite the diversity we’ve achieved here. You see it especially in some of the comments on social media pages and in comment threads attached to articles in the Valley Stream Herald newspaper. Case in point: A contingent of people went absolutely bugfuck last year when the Herald printed an article about a Muslim group petitioning the schools to declare Eid Al-Fatir as a school holiday. It’s an ugly little microcosm of the nativism that rages in some other parts of the country in the Age of Twitler and his MAGAT’s. For the most part, these people quickly reveal themselves for what they are and what they believe to be true about the “kind” of people moving into town. They stand out through their small-mindedness here, and the future is leaving them behind.
Up in the Adirondacks, my family used to stay near the tiny crossroads of Onchiota, NY, where the local General Store owner and Postmaster, Bing Tormey, posted signs around his little main square that became legendary. The best of these was: “You are leaving 97 of the friendlist people in the Adirondacks (plus a couple of soreheads).”
There ya go.
Me, I don’t particularly like apartment buildings. We lived in one – the really old one on Grove Street across from Holy Name of Mary Church – for a year and a half before we came here. Nothing personal against the other people whose lives led them to that same apartment building, but for us personally, the experience was like being under siege all the time. I like mountains. And rivers. We’re really just here for the money, my wife and I. So we can go visit mountains and rivers. This is where our jobs are, and this is my son’s hometown. If we left, it sure wouldn’t be because of anybody who’s moving in.
And yes, every town on Long Island is a property tax rabbit hole and everything costs way too much, but the opportunities exist here to do pretty much anything for a living (except maybe forestry or sheparding) and live a decent middle-class life. We have a lot invested in getting up and going to work in the morning, and we get a pretty good return on that investment. Not great, but pretty good. All things considered, we have very, very little to complain about compared to most of the people on Earth.
And this past weekend, the people who monitor the Valley Stream News Facebook – the first ones to tell you the helicopters are flying over the mall and all hell is breaking loose again – had a get-together at our very neat and clean Hendrickson Park, where people came on down and met their neighbors for a pot-luck meal and some pleasant company on a Saturday afternoon, all happy to be part of the scene in New York State’s best town. I’ll let the picture below stand for itself . Not pictured is John Duffy or his family, as we were upstate in Copake Falls that day (ironically) but otherwise we’d have be there, and I appreciate every effort that people make to make this a better place, knowing full-well that it will never be 1955 ever again, and the whole world is crowded except for Onchiota, NY.
The reality of Valley Stream, Long Island in 2018, is simply not the reality my parents bought into in 1955. With nothing but $400,000 houses, there’s really no place for people get started here. And many of the people who are trying to get started here anyway are from other places in the world, many of them having done their time in those same neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn that produced the population of post-war Long Island. And one could take it as a compliment that they think so much of Valley Stream that this is where they want to live and raise their kids. Or one could bemoan the fact that one’s hometown is not what it was. But really, nothing is, so what sense does that make? And for the second and third generations of Valley Streamers like myself, why would you begrudge people who are trying to do for their kids what your parents did for you, no matter where those people came from?
We’re waiting at the light to cross Sunrise Highway right now, and there’s always the chance we might get killed. It’s a busy, angry, stressed-out six-lane highway in a town full of busy, angry, stressed out drivers on roads choked with way too many cars, hence there are generally two or three fatalities a year on Sunrise Highway just in Nassau County alone. The State DOT just finished a big expensive reconstruction that, I have to admit, made me feel better about my chances of not getting killed. Included in that reconstruction was a series of crosswalks where you press the button and a very commanding computer voice tells you very matter-of-factly to “WAIT.” The first time Mookie heard this, he looked back at me to figure out how the hell I did that with my voice. And, of course, he waited, because he’s a good dog. And I laughed and I laughed.
Now we’re walking up Valley Stream’s main drag. The question of “what can we do to make people shop on Rockaway Avenue?” has been bandied about since Green Acres was built. (Here’s an idea: Don’t build Green Acres). Rockaway Avenue has been slightly dysfunctional for most of my life, but like me, it gets by. There used to be a movie theatre, The Rio, which was actually an old vaudeville playhouse. I saw the Grateful Dead Movie there at least five times, and saw the Stray Cats perform on the 4th of July, probably 35 years ago. In many towns east and north of us in Nassau County and out into Suffolk County, people made the investment to save their local one-screen movie houses and turn them into performing arts spaces. Subsequently, if you look around, there are interesting places to see plays and live music and vintage films all over Long Island and Valley Stream isn’t one of them. Oops.
We do have Ancona, which is famous for their true New York pizza, calzones and heroes, and where you are officially in with the Valley Stream in-crowd if George knows you by name. We have Itgen’s, famous for their homemade ice cream, and recently sold with the promise that it will continue. We have Mitchell’s, a nice little restaurant, though I prefer the Valbrook Diner up on Merrick Road, and an Italian Restaurant called Mia’s that’s been on my list of places to try a lot longer than Meli Melo. We used to have Morris’ Variety, which for years was the place to get everything from a screw to a fake Christmas tree. It was taken over a few years back by Raindew. Not quite as quirky as Morris’, but it serves the same purpose. They got me hooked on Yankee Candles. A lot of businesses have disappeared over the years, but there are a surprising number of survivors.
Among the Rockaway Avenue old-timers are the T & F Pork Store, DePalma Florist, Larry’s Bar, Woods Locksmith, Ciccarelli the Tailor (make-a you a nice suit), Brancard’s Deli, Valley Home Care and Surgical Supplies, Valley Stream Pharmacy, Chicken Gyro Delicious and the stalwart Sal and Vin’s Barbershop, established in 1952. Tell Michael you know me.
Rockaway Avenue is also the go-to place if you like Latin American and South American cuisine. The Chicken Coop does Colombian chicken. There’s a couple of Spanish delis plus the Juanito Bakery and Café, and my favorite, the San Antonio Bakery, that will make you a hot dog they call a “compleato” – with avocado and a bun they made at 6am – that’ll knock you on your ass. If you want to go Mediterranean, there’s Sam’s Halal Steak and Grill where a Not-Halal Steak and Grill called P.J Harper’s used to be, and the Nightcap Café used to be before that. Haven’t tried it but I hear good things.
And yet, with this all going for it, Rockaway Avenue looks kind of shabby compared to other main drags on the Island. Beyond the stores I mentioned are your usual nail and hair salons, dollar stores, second-hand merchandise stores, empty storefronts and (of course) a T-Mobile. Taken as a whole, living organism, it doesn’t seem cohesive. It has a “patched together” quality about it. Many of the surrounding downtowns have invested more in visual appeal, fancy sidewalks and facades and uniform signage and the like. It’s also a heavily trafficked street so it’s somewhat noisy and dirty in general. The Village recently reclaimed an old building across from Ancona and renovated it into the Village Court in an effort to bring in more pedestrian traffic around Rockaway businesses and restaurants, so it’s not like they’re not trying.
But here’s the thing: Ultimately, how important is aesthetics if I can get a haircut, a new welcome mat, a compleato or a meatball parm hero and even get my wife’s shoes fixed by an old-timey shoe repair guy? How badly do I need bricked sidewalks and signs that all in the same typeface? I’d like the stores and the open space up the block from me to be less of a toxic wasteland, but to what end? So it suits my fussy sensibilities?
Sometimes you just have to get over it. Money Magazine thinks we’re “neat and clean”, and I’ll tell you what: As we’re walking through residential neighborhoods in Valley Stream that are now almost 100 years old, 95% of the front yards that we pass are pretty as a picture. The houses themselves, if not renovated, are well-maintained. People are house proud here, and it shows. This is all we have. We take care of it. We make lemonade.
But sometimes you have every right to be pissed. The surface of the roads, a juristictional spider web of responsibility divided among the Village, the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County, are for the most part terrible. While the parks are nice enough, too many public spaces are tired eyesores. The LIRR and the Utility Companies bear a lot of responsibility for that. Above our heads is a jungle of wires that may or may not stay up there if there’s a thunderstorm this afternoon, or a hurricane. The train trestles are rusting away.
Roads and public spaces are among the basic services that we pay property taxes for, and from what I see, they are not given priority. Somebody decided it was more important to give tax breaks to Green Acres Mall.
That’s right. Screw your roads. This is Long Island. We shop. Commerce is King here. If there are enough band-aids and rolls of duct tape holding together the infrastructure to get you to the next strip mall and back, then what the hell are you complaining about? Your neighbors in Valley Stream plant pretty flowers, and they smile at your dog. It’s the Best Place To Live in New York State. Just keep buying shit and we’ll all be fine.
Todd Pratt was a backup catcher for the New York Mets in the late 90’s / early 2000’s, when Hall of Famer Mike Piazza was the starting catcher. He was a good guy to have on your team. At this time, Shea Stadium, which was a perfectly wonderful place to go watch a baseball game, was already facing its demise. The plan, ultimately implemented in 2006, was to knock old Shea down – deemed a poorly designed relic of another time with ever-more disgusting bathrooms and concessions and 30 years of gum embedded in the concrete – and replace it with a “retro” stadium with all sorts of cool angles and seats closer and better angled towards the field, not to mention lots more expensive places to eat and cushy seats for the one-percenters.
Back in the 90’s, when the Mets flew into LaGuardia Airport after a road trip and Shea Stadium came into view from the plane, Todd Pratt would (I’ve read) stand up and make this announcement:
“Well, there it is boys. It’s kind of a dump. But it’s OUR dump.”
I get it. I never have really taken to Citi Field.
David Sabatino would get it, too, but unlike me, he wouldn’t accept it as the truth of his hometown. To David’s way of thinking, it would be blasphemous to call Valley Stream a dump, even to convey a sense of familiarity, or in my case, resignation. David, who loves Valley Stream like Mookie loves me, is the co-owner of Sip This, a coffee shop and cool hangout place that’s been on Rockaway, right across from where the movie theatre isn’t, for seven years. (It was named after Slipped Disc, the iconic hipster record store that once occupied the space. Get it? Slipped Disc? Sip This? Clever, huh? ). David also has a degree in urban planning ( I’m pretty sure) and he is a natural-born organizer. But more importantly, David is a good guy, and an optimist. And Valley Stream is lucky to have a guy like him around. So now he works for the Village as well, and very well may be the mayor someday whether he likes it or not.
He’s probably a good twenty-five years younger than me, but I didn’t have his level of energy and hope for the future when I was five, never mind thirty. It was Mookie, really who introduced me to David. In 2010, when Mookie was just a gleam in his father’s eye, I was researching dog parks to take the puppy I was getting in 2011. I came across a website for an organization called “Envision Valley Stream”, the brainchild of my friend Mr. Sabatino, which was, among other things, petitioning the Village of Valley Stream government to build and maintain a dog park.
We have a neat and clean and picturesque village park called Hendrickson Park a mile and half due north of Duffy’s Creek, which gets it fresh water and anti-freeze runoff from Mill Pond – which we’ll pass on the way back – and from Hendrickson Lake via pipes that go under Merrick Road and through the Village Green. Hendrickson Lake features a fine walking and biking path that leads up to Valley Stream State Park, and there’s an equally fine community pool complex in the park that we pay lots of money to swim in every summer. But no dogs are allowed on the path, and they can only swim in the kiddie pool on the day after Labor Day because everybody at Village Hall likes Mike Powers, who first had the idea. And how could you not?
So back in 2010, David starts planning a dog park, and I start going to his Envision Valley Stream meetings, and we strike up a friendship and all of a sudden I’m involved in the community. I start getting to know Mayor Fare (yeah, I know. It’s like it’s made up) and Deputy Mayor and Renaissance Man Vinny Grasso and other people who I liked right away because I recognized them instantly as real Valley Stream as an adjective (smart; personable; outspoken; funny; genuine).
The road to building the dog park, now located in the Village Green next to the Village Hall and the Library, had a couple of rough patches along the way. I got discouraged and frustrated, but other people who had taken David’s idea and run with it, including the aforementioned Mr. Powers, did not, because they’re better people than I am. Eventually you would have to say it was a success. So much so that the Town of Hempstead, Nassau County and other village municipalities started building more dog parks, so our dog park doesn’t get quite the crowd that it used to. Still, over the years, it’s been a great place to kill a half hour and shoot the breeze while Mookie watches dogs that are way too fast for him to keep up with. (It’s really the people park with dogs in it for Mookie).
David Sabatino, force of nature that he is, moved on to other things, including starting a family and buying a house in Westwood. Right now he’s planning a Community Garden and – get this – a “Winter Festival” centered around the ice hockey rink next to the train station. And getting involved with Sabatino’s vision gets you involved with all sorts of other people, which is indirectly how I wound up agreeing to do a presentation about the history of Valley Stream through the history of my parents for the local Historical Society. I’ll be at the Community Center on Wednesday September 12th of this year (2018). Unless of course they read this post and tell me to stuff it.
Rockawy Avenue was busy with so many people at the Valley Stream Community Feast.
Anyway, there’s one more important thing I have to tell you about Sabatino. His greatest civic accomplishment by far has been the establishment of the annual Valley Stream Community Fest on the fourth Saturday of September. For one day, Rockaway Avenue becomes a laid back pedestrian street fair, Hundreds of people turn out to stroll up and down the avenue. Every sports, civic, religious and cultural organization in town is represented, seated at folding tables with brochures and big smiles, ready to tell you all about what they do. The businesses on Rockaway get to promote themselves. Plus there’s lots of arts and crafts and junk food for sale, rides for the kids, demonstrations, people dancing around in brightly colored clothing, an antique car show and enough ethnic and religious diversity to make your average Trumpanzees want to crawl back into their caves, or possibly realize what assholes they’ve been all this time. But I doubt it.
And don’t think that Mookie doesn’t get in on all this. For three of the last four years, he’s worked a three-hour shift at the “Doggie Kissing Booth”, raising money to support the Friends of Valley Stream Dogs. On Fest Day, he’s in Mookie Heaven, wagging people over to him as they walk by (“Ohhhhh!!! Look how cute!!!) and convincing them to hand Mike a dollar so they can lean down and get a big, sloppy wet dog smooch. Once Mookie is sufficiently overwhelmed, Bella the Chocolate Lab takes over, and that’s usually when we grab a compleato from San Antonio and head on home to the backyard. The creek is too icky for Mookie to swim in, so he has a kiddie pool to jump in to cool down after his walk. I can offer you a cold Dr. Pepper.
We’ll head home along South Franklin Avenue. We’ll pass the post office, the Burrito Monster (not a fan) and the Railroad Inn next to the train station, a bar now owned by a guy I went to kindergarten with, which is next to another bar called Buckley’s that’s been an old man’s bar since before the owner of the Railroad Inn and I were in kindergarten. The Dog Park and the Village Green are over on the other side of the tracks, but we’ve put about four and half miles on the Fitbit already, and we’re a half mile from home, and Mookie and I ain’t so young anymore, so the Dog Park will have to wait for later. We’ll pass Papandrew Jewelers, where the owner, who’s the son of the original owner, once took out an armed robber. We’ll cross Sunrise (“WAIT.”) and be glad we don’t need anything from Staples today.
We could cut across Mill Pond Park, which still has some nice, big trees, but instead we’ll walk through the almost 100-year old original Gibson neighborhood anchored by Roosevelt Avenue, because Mookie has a lot of friends down that way. Passing by the Sunoco with the sign that says :”COOFFEE 99 CENTS!” (you can also get free air for your tires if you press the “botton”) we’ll make the turn at the Greek Pie Factory (they’re really tasty) and the hair salon with the sign lit up in 100-point type (“HAIR SALON!”), both on the ground floor of a very old two-story building that someone would like to knock down to build another high-rise apartment, and probably will.
We could go up to Cochran Place, which would lead us back to Gibson Station, but we’re going to cut west back towards Jedwood Place. Once on a summer Sunday afternoon we saw a group of people in a tiny back yard on Cochran who had a dance floor set up where they were all watching one couple dancing a tango. My, I was glad I saw that. This same family has some sort of parrots that used to squawk at my son and I from the windows when we rode on our bikes to the summer camp he loved going to at Barrett Park. There’s another guy along Ridge who walks his parrot on his shoulder, which makes Mookie think to himself, “My, I’m glad I saw that.”
We could walk straight down Roosevelt to Fairfield where some old guys might be leaning on a chain link fence shooting the breeze, and Mookie will growl at the dog behind that fence because they’re supposed to be his old guys. A little further on he might see his friend the 99-year old WWII veteran sitting on his porch, and he’ll stop and do his waggy waggy routine until the his old friend invites him up on the porch for a face rub.
Crossing Mill, we might see the happiest guy in the world, one of my new neighbors from somewhere far away who always greets us warmly, who is out almost every evening when the sun is shining, happily tidying up the gardens around his little house at the corner of Mill and Jedwood, where the traffic is hideous and where I wouldn’t live if you gave me $400,000 but he seems to love it. It just goes to show you. Everything is relative. And his relatives seem to enjoy it, too.
We’ll arrive home in Mookie’s backyard, and he’ll cool down in his pool. But before you go, I’ll leave you with a scene I saw on that neglected path that you see directly across the creek. Mookie and I were walking along that path one morning when we came upon a young Filipino couple getting their three little kids out of the house for a while. Two of the kids were on bikes and the youngest was walking. The kids on the bikes stopped riding, as they were very excited to meet Mookie, and he them. The father and the mother caught up to them and the father asked me about his breed and I told him and he said, “he’s a big boy.” And I said, “he sure is!” and Mookie wagged his tail.
I was thinking to myself that these people are my parents in 1958, with three little kids who need to get out of the house and a nice path along a creek (somewhat nicer then) to go for a walk right near their house.
Livin’ the Dream in Valley Stream.
And just as I was thinking this, I saw the smallest kid, who was on foot, catching up to the others and zooming in on Mookie. Then I noticed his t-shirt. It said, “YOU CAN’T STOP THIS!”
And I thought to myself: Why would I want to? Why would anyone?
Kid, let me tell you something about Valley Stream, since you’ll be growing up here just like I did. I’ve been around here a long time, and to tell you the truth I’m at the point where other places, with bigger trees and fewer cars, are calling to me. (I suppose you’ve never heard of Zillow, kid, but don’t worry about it).
For the foreseeable future, though, I suppose Mookie and I will be part of the scenery as you grow up here. And the fact is, we could both do a lot worse. I don’t know about the Best Place to Live in New York State, but your parents still picked a good place for you to live, just like my parents did. Remember that.
And kid, if and when Mookie and I do move on, please do us both a favor and take care of what’s left of the natural world around here. It’s probably going to get more and more crowded and noisy, but help out the birds any way you can. And keep your antenna up, ’cause you never know what kind of shit your local politicians will pull, or what they will neglect. Better yet, get to know them, and let them know what you think.
And this is important, kid. Don’t let anyone ever, ever make you believe that you don’t belong here. That’s up to you to decide. Until then, you belong here as much as I do.
And one more thing:
Valley Stream? The Town of Hempstead? Nassau County? Long Island? New York? America? The Planet Earth?
People throw their garbage in the street here, but people also organize street fairs. People build humongous apartment buildings here, but they also build dog parks, and maybe they’ll fix this path. People drive like psychopaths here, but they light up at red lights when they see a big happy dog smiling at them from the sidewalk. People who can get away with it steal money here to build more stores to steal more money, but the teacher or principal that you remember forever at Forest Ave. School or South High will be worth every penny your parents pay in school taxes. People make a mess of things here, and people keep it from becoming a complete mess.
George Bailey, the regular-guy hero of Bedford Falls, New York, as portrayed by James Stewart in Frank Capra’s 1946 movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” is one of my role models. I know I’m not alone in this. While I never saved my little brother from drowning (I don’t have one) and I’ve never been known for distributing cash among my neighbors (but I would if I could), I’ve always admired how George was able to balance the big dreams of what he thought his life should have been with the reality of what it was. And how, by his actions, he intuitively made his little world, the one he privately complained of being “stuck” in, a better place for himself and for everybody around him. It would be ridiculous of me to suggest that I’ve had anywhere close to the same effect on my little world as George had on his, but I’ll tell you what: I’ve done no harm, and like George, I’ve been blessed in having made a lot of friends around town, though I hope I never have to ask them for $8000, ’cause that would be awkward.
And of course, everyone knows that George never leaves Bedford Falls. And me, I have found myself as an AARP-eligible adult landed on a comfy couch right here on the same 60 x 100 plot of land in Valley Stream, Long Island that I started out on 54 and a half years ago. I have a beautiful, funny, successfully employed wife and a smart, good-looking son with who is finding his way through adolescence pretty well despite a school system and social system totally unsuited to his particular genius (which is fixing every single mechanical thing on the planet that has broken). I have a good job, a nice little house, more toys and diversions that I ever have time to get around to (like this blog). I have a big happy yellow lab who is my personal ambassador to the human race and three cats for entertainment and interesting conversation.
Just like George Bailey, I could have done a whole lot worse. I’ve really had a wonderful life and I have no intention of throwing it all away. But I also have no intention of letting it be taken away from me piece by piece by the Forces of Pottersville, at least not without a fight. This is me fighting.
I first saw, “It’s a Wonderful Life” when I was about 14 in 1977, around the time the 1946 movie became public domain and Channel 11 in New York would show it over and over before Christmas. I started telling everyone in my family and anyone who would listen that they had to see this movie. I dare say I was in on the ground floor of the revival that made it Everybody’s Favorite Christmas Movie. And I dare say I do a dead-on Jimmy Stewart impersonation, which I promise I’ll do for you when I branch out into podcasting. I was immediately charmed by the story, the town of Bedford Falls and George Bailey’s character. And I guess the lesson that George learns from his nightmare in Pottersville became part of the unshakable truths that I’ve built my value system on: Success has nothing to do with money or career status and everything to do with the cumulative effects of being a good person and trying to do the right thing. I don’t know if George had anything to do with me never moving more than twenty miles away from where I was born, but that’s entirely possible.
George had his chances to get out of Bedford falls (‘and see the world!”), but he realized early on that the big dreams he had a young man were not as important as being a good guy, which is the most important thing of all. He didn’t necessarily want to be where he was, but until Uncle Billy handed Mr. Potter an envelope with $8000 in it, he didn’t take that dissatisfaction and frustration out on anybody around him. He treated people the way you should treat people. Despite his desire to “shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet,” George took comfort in people and places and protocols that had remained the same in Bedford Falls throughout his life. He knew where he stood with everybody and everybody knew where they stood with him. Me, too.
George could’ve done something more with his life than holding together the Bailey Building and Loan. (It’s always presented with a pejorative: “Broken down”, “measly”, “penny-ante”). I probably could have been something “more” than a junior high school English teacher if I had applied myself a little more as a younger guy. Before I started phoning it in and getting crappy grades in high school (just like my beloved Dude does now, bless his heart), I was supposed to write great things or be a famous something or other. By the time I was going to Queens College at night to cobble together the credits for an English BA, those dreams of writing novels, or sitcoms in Hollywood, or being a famous FM disc jockey were all pretty much dead, and after two years in the production department at New York Magazine, finding out how unpleasant life could potentially be in the editorial department, I got my master’s and went into teaching ’cause I knew I’d be good at it and I could finally get out of my parent’s house. Those aren’t noble reasons to enter my profession, I’ll admit. But you know what? I followed in my mother’s footsteps, and I’ve helped thousands of kids learn to read, write and think a little better and a little deeper in my “shabby little office” for over 23 years.
So George and I find ourselves with something else in common: Our professional lives are a tribute to a parent that instilled a sense of values and beliefs in us that neither one of us could ultimately escape from, simply because it made so much sense. George keeps the Bailey Building and Loan going so people have someplace to go without crawling to Potter. I ultimately decided teaching was a better use of my life than helping to produce a magazine that would be thrown away when the next one came out (though it’s a mostly insane existence from September to June every year, which my archives will tell you doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for blogging).
Plus, I couldn’t help noticing that some of the people who wrote this magazine were terribly impressed with themselves and their Manhattan lifestyles. I spent Sundays waxing floors with a friend of mine from Valley Stream because I wasn’t making enough money. That friend was smarter, funnier and more original than anyone at New York Magazine, but they would never understand why. They wouldn’t get him. In the end, I needed to be with real people. To “fritter my life away playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic eaters.” as Mr. Potter puts it to George. It was good enough for my mother, and it’s been good enough for me. And I love garlic.
And of course, when not at work, when it’s safe to speak my mind, I continue another one of my mother’s traditions (besides an addiction to Jeopardy, which she actually got from me, and blasting WQXR Classical in the kitchen while cooking dinner, which my Bose Soundtouch has taken to a whole other level, thank you Trisha): The tradition of Good Old-Fashioned Democratic, Bleeding-Heart Liberal Politics.
Growing up, I soaked up both of my parents complaints about that Crook Nixon in the 70’s and that Buffoon Cowboy Reagan in the 80’s. I saw the damage they did, (and later felt that damage more acutely as an adult while W. wrecked the country in the 2000’s). By virtue of working in the New York City high schools, my parents were immersed in diversity before it was even close to a thing. They believed that without labor unions, “the bastards” would rob you blind. They took their children to the Adirondacks and grew flowers and vegetables in the backyard and studied the comings and goings of the ducks on the creek and thus turned us all into environmentalists, around the time it was becoming a thing. My parents always rooted for the underdog and they despised guns and the abuse of power. They were devout, religious catholics who practiced their faith in their lives and knew Billy Graham and the evangelists were full of shit.
Mom was more vocal about all this, as she was about everything. My dad was more of a “do as I do” guy. But I’ll tell you what: If my mother, Joan Marie Duffy, were alive today, she’d be screaming bloody murder about what’s going on in this country. She’d be a voice of Resistance on Twitter, probably with a couple of thousand followers, probably using the expletive “fuck” in all it’s forms to comment on the disgusting developments of the past year. She can’t so I do. They’ll vote with Potter otherwise.
Because as we all know now, this is what happened: The GOP knew Trump was disgusting, and they pretended to complain about him at the start of the primaries but they knew that their primary voting base was equally disgusting, and the more primaries he won, the less they complained (and the more free air time he got on cable news for the Hitler rallies). And the more disgusting things he said, the more the people in this country who had already been thrown into their own Pottersville Of The Mind loved him for it.
A lot has been said and written about the people and the vibe in the Nightmare Pottersville of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (For example, the friend who I used to wax floors with thought it seemed like a lot more fun). One has to admit, Capra’s vision of dystopia is a bit over the top, from the amphetamine-driven boogie-woogie piano player in Nick’s Bar to the over-capacity dance halls on Main Street to Burt the cop opening fire into a crowd. I personally always found it amusing that there even was a Pottersville Public Library, never mind the fact that Mary Hatch was an old maid who was just about to close it down. I think it’s more likely that the town council, all in Mr. Potter’s back pocket, probably would have closed it as part of an austerity budget designed to line their own pockets.
But I think that the point Capra was trying to illustrate with all this silliness was simply this: The rich assholes pit everyone against each other. People lose trust. They turn on their neighbors. They come to believe that not giving a shit is much easier, which it is, and why make the effort to make your town or your country better if those rich assholes are pulling all the strings? Fuck ’em all. Nothing matters. Just lay down a few bucks for some mindless entertainment, get shitfaced and forget about how much better your life could actually be if you got educated and exercised your First Amendment rights, ’cause it ain’t never gonna happen, bub. You’re just too lazy, and they’ve got you by the balls.
Nick the Bartender showed compassion for George Bailey as he breaks down on the bar stool. Nick the Boss is the twisted dictator of his own little band of small-time assholes, a big fish in a toxic pond of deplorables who gets off on spraying Mr. Gower in the face with a seltzer bottle, ostensibly because Mr. Gower deserved it, even though he’s obviously paid his debt to society and is a threat to no one in his current condition. He has no patience for Clarence the Angel, even after George suggests he has a mental disability. If you’re different in Pottersville, you get thrown out on your ass in the snow.
And Mary Hatch? Why is she an old maid? Capra is suggesting that it’s because there weren’t enough decent people left in Pottersville. She couldn’t find George not because George didn’t exist but because people who, in a fair, compassionate society, may have been more like George were instead being reprogrammed into mean, suspicious, wounded and dangerous animals like Violet Bick, Ernie the Cab Driver and George’s own mother have become in George’s Pottersville nightmare.
As the media narrative goes, in the Rust Belt states where Trump won the electoral college; Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the people were fed up with the status quo and didn’t trust Hillary Clinton. Some of that may be true, but here’s how I and many other people have come to see it: Some of those people are exactly what Hillary said they were, the famous “Basket of Deplorables”. They’re pissed off because they have come to believe that people of color and immigrants are treated better than they are by society at large, ignoring the small fact that those people of color and immigrants happened to have spent the previous ten years working their asses off to get educated, learn trades and build up businesses instead of watching “The Apprentice” in their double-wides and smoking crystal meth in the Wal Mart parking lot. The Deplorables are bitter, nasty, poorly-dressed, poorly-educated, poorly-spoken people who resent everyone, blame everyone but themselves for their troubles and saw Trump as a way to take all us liberal coastal elite smart asses down into the Pottersville Pit of Despair right along with them.
But these people had been like this for years, as anyone who ever watched “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo!” or “Duck Dynasty” for five minutes can attest. And Fox News stoked the fire against The Black Guy for eight years, convincing the most hardcore stupid among them that Obama wouldn’t say Merry Christmas because he was a Muslim, even if he was saying it on every other news channel.
And if these people really had that much power in the electorate, how did Obama get elected – and win those states – twice? Those elections, in 2008 and 2012, were won with voter turnout, and with the votes of intelligent, compassionate residents of Bedford Falls America who saw right through The Republican Lie that bankrupted the country at least three times in the last 100 years. There’s way more of us than there are of them and that remains true right now. But especially after Obama’s re-election over the guy with the dog strapped to the roof of his car (who honestly doesn’t look nearly as bad in retrospect), we thought we’d finally turned the corner. The new, diverse, young optimistic America was ready to drive policy and public opinion away from your crazy ass, obnoxious bigoted old uncle who blames everything on minorities and immigrants and suggests that maybe Hitler had the right idea.
The Republican Party was well on its deserved way to being irrelevant on the morning of November 8th, 2016. And then, it happened: Your crazy ass, obnoxious bigoted old uncle who blames everything on minorities and immigrants and suggests that maybe Hitler had the right idea was declared the winner of the Presidential Election.
My take on why: There were people on the fence about Hillary. I could understand that to a certain extent. I supported Bernie in the primaries because I’m a socialist. I know Hillary wouldn’t take that personally. I had no problem with her prospective Presidency. I figured she’d still have to deal with Republican control of the House at the very least and probably would be limited, like Obama was after 2010, in what she could actually get done, but that I’d agree with 90% of what she wanted to do. I’m sure lots of people felt the same way about her.
But the bastards saw their opening: Besides their usual voter suppression tricks, they leaked the emails that made Hillary look like the politician that anybody with a brain already knew she was. They pushed the server story over and over, despite the fact that it wasn’t really a story at all. And of course, with Putin’s help, they planted lie after lie on people’s Facebook pages and bot after bot on their Twitter feeds.
And those people who were on the fence about Hillary, but at the same time thought that Trump was a disaster, they figured no sweat, there’s no way the same America that voted for Obama twice is ever going to turn 180 degrees and elect a racist, ignorant buffoon. They stayed home and didn’t vote at all because the Forces of Pottersville had sown their doubts about the intentions of the Big Clinton Machine.
As for those that did vote, contaminated by those Putin-inspired doubts, I suppose they found themselves walking into the voting booth like Uncle Billy walking into the bank. They got distracted by the drama of the moment and handed Trump and the Republican Party the United States of America stuck inside a folded up newspaper. The majority of the country woke up the next morning rifling through the garbage can incredulously, with a sense of panic growing by the second, while they smirked at us from behind the door, knowing that they had us where they always wanted us.
And here we are, a year later. The evidence in the public domain that Trump stole the election with the help of the Russians is overwhelming, so one could only imagine what’s in Robert Mueller’s filing cabinets right now. I can’t begin to imagine how that whole thing is going to play out. (But most people realize it would be hard to have a Civil War with no Mason-Dixon Line to stand behind). And, just in time for Christmas, the rich assholes who paid for their Republican candidates, from Trump on down – they got what they wanted: Their big, fat, immoral corporate tax cut. My parents always warned me: The bastards will rob you blind if you let them.
Our accountant is a decent fellow. I’ve known him for many years. We both love dogs. But he is a Trump supporter and a Hillary hater. And I know if I asked him, he’d tell me (passionately) that we’re going to do great on this GOP tax cut, although I don’t see how that could possibly be. (My usual reaction when I hear a Republican say anything). Statistically, It turns out that my wife and I, by virtue of getting up really every working morning, keeping our mouths shut, and being really, really lucky, are rich; a notion that’s “rich” in itself as we’re always broke. We may not be part of the doomsday scenarios of what this tax plan will actually do to the middle class, because again statistically, we’re not in it. Despite losing the deduction of the $9,000 we pay in school and property taxes, not to mention losing the deduction for state income tax here in the Incredibly Expensive Empire State, our very successful accountant will probably tell us that we’re going to come out ahead, or at least even. We’ll wait and see.
The problem for me is that the, “I’ll be fine so screw everybody else” mentality is exactly why America has been allowed to turn into Pottersville. It’s very nice if we pay less federal income tax. It would be even nicer if I could be assured that people less fortunate than us will be able to stay in their houses, never mind heat them. It would be really nice if people in Puerto Rico could put food in refrigerators and turn a light on when they use the bathroom right now. It’s what my mother would have been screaming about right now, but no one making decisions in the federal government seems terribly concerned.
And it It would be especially very nice to know that this mass redistribution of wealth upwards will not be followed as it always is by municipal budget cuts, reduction of school aid, home foreclosures, small business layoffs and personal bankruptcies. We’ve seen this movie before. We know where they’re going with this. Cities and towns all over America cutting back transpotation service, library service, after-school and elderly programs, public assistance for the poor, drug and alcohol treatment. Then they start telling you that you’re getting too much in Social Security and we just can’t afford to support all these people on Medicaid and Medicare. But look! The stock market is doing great! Corporation are making record profits! There’s never been more choices of shit to watch on TV!
Fucking Pottersville. All over again.
So what do you do if you go to sleep in Bedford Falls and you wake up in Pottersville? What do you do when your beautiful, compassionate country has turned more mean and more ugly in a year than you thought possible? What do you do when America is starting to feel like Nick’s Bar and you just want to sit quietly with a friend, sipping at your flaming rum punch, heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves, but the motherfuckers are harassing you at every turn and it’s looking more and more like you’ll get thrown into the snow with everyone else who doesn’t fit their Nazi, Deplorable prototype? If they don’t get me because of my political views, maybe they’ll just smirk at me from behind a cracked-open door when the next big hurricane wipes away everything I have, despite paying FEMA $2000 something a year to protect against that. Or maybe flat out kill me with radiation poisoning, in which case, I suppose they win. That’d be just like something they’d do.
Well, for one thing, you take Barack Obama’s advice: “Don’t boo. Vote.” While I regularly employ my First Amendment rights and Internet access to tell Speakers McConnell and Ryan and the Liar-in-Chief to go fuck themselves, I realize they aren’t bothered particularly by my provocations. Though it would be fun to get into a shouting match with Paul Ryan and watch him get all flustered and hysterical.
I do hope all the people who are screaming outrage and hashtagging themselves with #The Resistance are people who voted in the last Presidential Election, but statistically, I know many of them did not. They did put a nice dent into the Republican Lie this past November, which was nice to see. (And especially nice to see Alabama rise up to stop Roy Moore just this past month). Even here on Long Island, voters booted out Republican administrations in Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead that were as hard to get rid of as cockroaches.
And in the year that starts tomorrow, every seat in The House of Representatives that has stood by and done nothing as Trump has wrecked the country by executive order, enriched himself and his family at taxpayer expense, and proven himself to be batshit crazy – every seat in that political body is up for grabs, gerrymandering and voter suppression notwithstanding. Alabama has shown that anything is possible and maybe people aren’t quite so stupid after all. So if you read this and you agree with me, vote. And if you read this and yout think I’m a naive hippe liberal that has no idea how the world really works, vote. Because it’s your right. I’m going to bet the odds that more people think like me, and would much rather live in a place like Bedford Falls. And that the criminal tragedy of the 2016 Election and all bullshit that’s been thrown at us will still be very fresh in people’s minds come this fall.
In the meantime, consider Zuzu’s petals, the metaphor. When George finds Zuzu’s petals (in that cool little pocket sewed into his suit pants for which I couldn’t imagine another purpose) he knows he’s home. He knows everything is going to be OK, even though he’s still missing $8000. (“Isn’t it great? I’m goin’ to jail!”) As long as he has his family, and the people and the life he loves in Bedford Falls, it will all work itself out.
Zuzu’s petals represent home. Here in our home, we don’t watch 24-Hour Cable News. We get our daily Trump Disasters on a need-to-know basis from Twitter and respond in kind, often using a form of the expletive “fuck”, just like Mom would have. We watch Stephen Colbert mock the Fat Dotard, the Turtle and the Smirker, reminding us that they might have the power to poison our air and water, and possibly deport our neighbors, but they can’t kill our spirit, the American Spirit. It runs way too deep, and goes back way too far to ever die. We’ll be back in the fight tomrrow, no matter what happens.
The people who brought you Trump and that Tax Nonsense, they weren’t listening to Martin Luther King when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” They thought they didn’t have to listen to him because he was black.
But we were listening, and we believe it.
Zuzu’s petals are the birds and ducks living around Duffy’s Creek, and the garden of colors we let loose in the summertime. Zuzu’s petals are driving down to the Long Beach Boardwalk on a warm day or going out to sit awhile with my elderly father at the nursing home then going for a hike up in Stony Brook. Zuzu’s petals are watching my nephews become husbands and fathers and knowing Joan and Francis Duffy’s family will live well past my own expiration date. Zuzu’s petals are stopping in to our favorite businesses around Valley Stream, where they know us and we know them, just like in Bedford Falls. Zuzu’s petals are in the food we cook, the music we play, the one-liners we trade, the neighbors we wave to, the church we go to, the roof over our heads and the hot water coming out of our faucet. Everything that is good in our lives, that still stayed good this year, despite all attempts by the Forces of Pottersville to turn us into a bitter, selfish assholes just like them.
So I wish you a Happy New Year and offer some unsolicited advice of how to survive a difficult time that may get more difficult before it gets less difficult:
Keep Zuzu’s petals in your pocket. Any pocket will do. You will have hope for a better future, and hope for a better future is really all you need to get out of bed in the morning.
And treat the place where you live like your own little Bedford Falls, even if the sign says Pottersville. Being a good person is the ultimate measure of success. As I regularly tell my son, please don’t be an asshole.
Your reward for being good? You’ll be at the front of the crowd, your heart filled with joy, together with all your good American neighbors, and together in spirit with all the people who made you who you are and imbibed you with that spirit, when we all rise up to tear that fucking sign down for good.
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 1971by 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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). The 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.
Mr 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 Colonials, and they’re great houses. Before the 1920’s were over, Gibson 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.
After 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.
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.
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:
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.”
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.
The last story I told my mother was about how Mookie the Dog rescued a kitten. It happened three years ago this week. Today, I’d like to tell it to you, just as she would’ve, with enough painfully intricate detail to make you want to run screaming.
Somewhere, probably within ten miles of here, this scrawny little black and white kitten has grown into a fat, healthy three-year old house cat, all because he had the good sense to follow a dog that should have been named Jesus. It’s a good little story, and you not only get to hear it, you get to know The Dude’s Grandma Duffy a little bit along the way. Anyone who ever met her would tell you it’s your lucky day.
If she had one glaring weakness, or one great strength, it would have to be the incredible twists, turns, detours, asides and complete non-sequiturs that my mom would take you on when she told a story. I never met anyone who didn’t like her, so I guess it was a strength. People enjoyed listening to her, she enjoyed listening to other people, and she remembered every single thing anyone ever told her. Therefore, if she were telling you a story about running into someone at a store, you would come away from the experience learning not only the person’s life story, but more than likely the history of the store as well, plus an overview of the inventory, some background on the owner and his employees, and the parking situation outside. But if you were, on any given weekday, trying to get work done, or take care of a child and his animals, make dinner and clean the house all at the same time, and the phone rang, and Mom had a story, and you didn’t want to be rude, because you were rude last time, you would be sucked down into the abyss, and the hands of the clock would start spinning around like they do in cartoons and old movies.
So we had our fights in her last couple of years before she died because it drove me crazy to get stuck on the phone when I had pressing matters to see to. I’m really not a phone guy in the best of circumstances. But the problem was that Mom had nothing to see to, nothing to do really except be in pain from Parkinson’s Disease. And though her body was shot, her mind remained sharp as a needle until her last days. She became a prisoner of a body that didn’t work anymore. Yet she had spent her whole life busy at something, and had always had an innate need to connect to other people, to be part of the action. She raged like hell against the dying of the light. Her mind was a housefly trying to get through a plate glass window.
In 2001, after 46 years in Valley Stream, she and my father moved from Duffy’s Creek to a “life care community” in Suffolk County, about 50 miles from here, and sold the house to us. If you go to live in a life care community, you start in a cottage, then you go to an assisted living facility, then you go to the skilled nursing floor, then you slide into the back of a Caddy. Mom went through the four steps of life care in the space of 11 years, the last three in two years. And through those years, most of our catching up was done over the phone. The problem was that a lot of the time I had nothing to share except the stress of the daily grind, which was not the slightest bit interesting to me, so I really didn’t want to be on the phone. More than once I was unnecessarily nasty about it. But she got even. She died.
Oh, and I should mention that no one was allowed to call HER between 7:00 and 7:30 weeknights because she’d be watching Jeopardy, which I got her hooked on. My entire goal in life some weekdays in the winter is to get to the point where I can sit down on the comfy couch and watch Jeopardy on the DVR. Some days that doesn’t happen until 9:30 or so. Mom never learned how to work a DVR. It wasn’t her style. But God forbid you went a week without calling, or not calling back in due time if you let the answering machine pick it up because you were tossing chicken cutlets. She’d attack with all the Irish Mother guilt in her arsenal.
So I made it a point to call her on Thursday August 16, 2012 and tell her what happened that day. I knew she would appreciate it, and I had time to talk, and to listen if necessary. It was a story about Mookie, and she loved Mookie. She would introduce him to people when he came out to see her at the life care community as “the youngest member of my family.” And Mookie fell in love with Grandma Duffy instantly because she was the first person to sneak him human food under the table, specifically McDonald’s french fries. Mookie loves everybody, but after those french fries he always had a special place in his heart, and under the table, for Grandma Duffy.
On the morning of Thursday August 16th, 2012, Mookie and The Dude and I were walking on the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek. On our side, most of the backyards have a little buffer zone between the property line and the creek (we encroached on it and built a wetland garden). On the Left Bank, there’s a path that starts at a four-lane road and winds along the creek, with short streets dead-ending along it. It used to connect to a bridge that connected to another path that connects to Valley Stream South High School, which never did me any good. They took the bridge down about ten years ago because (they said) it was getting old and unsafe. The high school kids had trouble behaving themselves on the path leading to the bridge. Thirty years worth of Valley Stream kids had found fun and trouble hanging out by that bridge, I among them. Lots of people got real nostalgic when they took it down.
So there we were, down by where the bridge isn’t, and Mookie was sticking his nose under the gigantic holly bushes at the end of Elderberry Road. Under one of the bushes I heard a tiny little, “mew!” And my very first reaction was, “oh, crap.” This whole area is rife with stray cats (You can’t swing a cat without hitting one). My parents actually fed a small colony of them at one point, until it became a large colony. They kept one cat that moved out east with them and ended up living 15 years or so.
We have three cats. They live inside. The last thing I needed was for The Dude to find a litter of kittens under a bush.
Mookie heard the “mew!. He knew exactly what he had found and was very excited about it, as you could imagine. But The Dude didn’t hear it at first. (Sometimes he’s in a different stratosphere, even when he’s five feet away). I gave Mookie a quick pull and a “leave it!” He looked at me and expressed his disappointment and reluctant acceptance, as only he can. We started walking onward where the path veers away from the Creek and goes behind some houses.
And the kitten came out of the bushes and started following Mookie along the path. I immediately thought of the “Are You My Mother?” story. The little bird is left alone in the nest and flies around asking people, and things, if they are his mother. That story had a happy ending. I wasn’t feeling too good about this one.
We turned around and walked back towards the kitten, who at that point turned chicken and ran back under the bushes. There were no other cats to be seen. Although I didn’t express my thought process to The Dude, if figured the kitten had been either separated from or abandoned by it’s mother, and he would probably just lay under that bush and starve and roast until he was food for whatever eats dead kittens around here. Unless we rescued him.
And we couldn’t rescue him. In theory, sure, but in reality, well, we have three cats. Sunny, the oldest, is a very mellow zen master. She’s even trained Mookie to stop chasing her and sit his fat behind down when she comes in the room. They keep each other company. Then there’s Allie. Allie is a sweet, fat little ball of fur who is scared of her own shadow, and only leaves the attic at night when Mookie is asleep on The Dude’s bed behind a closed door.
And then there’s Lyle. Lyle is gangsta His back legs are too long, so he even walks gansta. Or really, more like a gunslinger that just got off his horse. He spends a lot of time catting around at night, until he gets bored and harasses me out of a dead sleep to get up and feed him. He does this every single night. And once he wakes me up, usually by batting at my eyelids or dropping his ass directly on my face, I have to pee anyway, ’cause I’m a guy in his 50’s. So I get up and I feed the cats. It’s gotten to the point where I set my alarm for 2:30 a.m on work nights, even though I don’t have to get up until 5, just so I know I can avoid being attacked and get back to sleep for a few hours. It’s a sad state of affairs, but Lyle decided from the beginning that I was his mother, and he’s very attached to me, although I regularly call him abusive names. Therefore, of course, Lyle is highly jealous of Mookie, who will follow me, follow me wherever I may go. Lyle will be happy to try and rip Mookie a new snout if he gets too close. And Mookie can’t understand how anyone could possibly not like him, ’cause everybody loves Mookie, so he keeps coming back for more abuse. Lyle and Mookie have a classic dysfunctional co-dependence.
So right away I knew that I was not going to be able to adopt this kitten, because Lyle would more than likely kill him the first chance he got. He’s a stone-cold killa gansta gunslinger. Ask the mouse that got into the house once. Actually, you can’t. He’s dead. Lyle snuffed his ass.
But I called Trisha at work and asked her anyway. Honey, Mookie found a kitten and it followed us, can we keep him?
Now, mind you, Trisha will be the first to tell you that she had planned to become a crazy cat lady but married me instead, AND she had three cats when we met, whom I loved as my own for the rest of their seven years. So we’re talking about a woman who has a soft spot for cats. And this is what she said (verbatim) when I told her what we found and asked if she wanted a fourth cat: “NOOOOOOOO!!! ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! NO WAY!!!”
So I called my pals at Broadway Vet in Hewlett. I knew that they often had kittens for adoption sitting in a cage in the waiting room. And I knew that Dr. Glenda Wexler had a soft spot for Mookie, and wouldn’t want to disappoint him. They reluctantly agreed to take the kitten if I could catch him. No problem. I had a pet carrier, plenty of cat food and a dog named Jesus. The thought occurred to me, though, that the mother might come back for the kitten, and that I was sticking my nose into cat business that shouldn’t concern me. But I also knew that being a feral cat is nothing but a one-way ticket to Palookaville, so it was in the kitten’s best interest to leave the wilds of the Left Bank of Duffy’s Creek behind.
We drove over with the cat carrier, the cat food and Jesus the Dog, who of course found the kitten right away. I had The Dude hold Mookie while I got the kitten to eat some cat food off a plate, then put the plate inside the crate. And just like that, the kitten was in the back seat of a minivan on the way to his new life in the Five Towns, no longer a feral animal. The entire process took about an hour. The kitten was adopted within a week. He has no doubt grown into a beautiful cat, and I wish we could’ve kept him. But I like Lyle well enough, even if he is an asshole.
The first person I wanted to tell my Dog Rescues Cat story to was my mother. I called her that night and we had a nice long chat, and she listened to every word of the story and asked the right follow-up questions and pressed for the right details. I knew that this would give her a story to tell my father, who takes lots of naps and doesn’t like staying on the phone very long. Then she could tell her neighbors, and the people who took care of her, and her dinner companions at the community center (which we called “The Big House”) where she and my father ate every night. Then she could tell the waitress and the busboy. It was a good story. A yellow lab rescues a kitten. You can’t beat that. I knew that she would see that it was conversational gold. And now it was hers.
Less than 24 hours later, on Friday August 17th, my sister called. Mom had been taken to the hospital. They had found her “non-responsive.” I immediately knew it was the beginning of the end from just those words. In 82 years, no one had ever described Joan Duffy as non-responsive.
And I had a decision to make. The next day, Saturday August 18th, was or annual one-day trip upstate for Copake Falls Day. What is Copake Falls Day? I’ll let Mookie explain in his words: “We go for a long ride in the car, we say hi to a lot of people, we go swimming, we walk around, we sit in the shade, then finally we walk up a hill where there’s music playing and people hand you big slabs of barbecued meat, which turns out to be what Mookies like best. Then you sleep in the car all the way home.” That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. We haven’t missed it since they started doing it seven years ago.
I knew Mom was going to die, but nobody had officially told me that yet. I figured the worst that could happen is she would slip away during the 16 hours we’d be unavailable, and if she did, I could rationalize to myself that because Mookie rescued a kitten, and we had a nice, long phone conversation about it, and there was nothing she loved more than a nice long phone conversation, not to mention Mookie, so I could always say that we went out on a high note. I just didn’t feel the need to rush to her bedside. I thought of Albert Camus’ character in “The Stranger” – which of course Mom turned me on to – who is found to be a menace to society because he didn’t show emotion when his mother died.
But she wasn’t dead yet. And I have two older brothers and two older sisters. Mom would be covered for Saturday, and I’d be out there as soon as I could on Sunday.
So how did I know she was going to die? Well, In the true spirit of long-winded storytelling, it’s important to interject two details before we go on here. One is about her mother, my Grandma Scully. Julia Scully was a widow from 1958 until she died in 1989. She decided shortly before my grandfather died to drag him out of Astoria, Queens and follow my parents to the Creek in Valley Stream when the house next door to them was up for sale. William Scully died of complications from diabetes within a year and Julia Scully stayed next door and systematically drove my parents nuts for the better part of three decades. When the paramedics carried Grandma Scully out of her house in 1983 after suffering a stroke, she lingered in a nursing home for six years until she died at the age of 98. And my mother told me, and hundreds of other people more than likely, that Julia “thought she was going to write her own script. She thought she’d die in that house and never have to leave it.” And the point was, of course, that, as my English Teacher, Devout Catholic mother would say, quoting the gospel of Matthew, “we know not the day nor the hour.”
The other detail takes us to the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York. And buckle yourself in, ’cause this a big detour. Mohonk is a stunningly beautiful place. It has no equal. It’s also stunningly expensive to stay there. But Mom didn’t care. She heard about it from a friend and decided in 1982 that she and my father would stay there to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. Then in 1992, she dipped into the cash that Grandma Scully had piled in her house by collecting rent from the buildings she owned in Astoria (my father called it “The Scully Fortune”) to bring the entire family, fifteen of us at the time, up to stay for a weekend. Like a bunch of friggin’ Kennedys we were. A big Irish Catholic family all gathered up in suits and dresses for dinner, playing tennis and going to the spa or out on canoes on the lake during the day. I got to see how really wealthy people relaxed and had fun on vacation. I have to say, they have it down. Mom obviously had the time of her life because we did it again ten years later for their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2002. There were 18 of us by that time. We had a wonderful time. I don’t want to know what it cost.
But that was Mom. She loved a good party, and she thought it was worth it. My father, bless his soul, was madly in love with her from the day she helped him out in 10th grade math class at William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City. If she wanted it, he did what he could to make it happen. When they left the city to come to the suburbs, Mom said she wouldn’t buy a house unless she could see water from it. That’s why you’re reading duffyscreek.com. It was the best water they could afford at the time. Us too.
So when 2012 rolled around, and Mom was already separated by a floor in the skilled nursing building from Dad because he couldn’t take care of her anymore, and against the advice of just about everybody, she said fuck it, we’re all going back to Mohonk for a 60th Anniversary Reunion. Matching tee shirts and everything. She tortured my brother who handles the finances and my sister who handles the health care for the better part of the year over making the arrangements. She was going to get back there if it killed her. My father’s opinion? Whatever your mother wants.
They were transported from Long Island to New Paltz in the back of an ambulette. They were accompanied by two home health care aids, who stayed with my parents the entire weekend. They were delightful women. Mom had a list of everything she wanted to do while she was up there from Friday night until Sunday afternoon, including having somebody push her around the grounds and going to the outdoor picnic on Sunday afternoon.
And it rained more that weekend that it rained all summer. It rained buckets, for hours at a time. And Mom was pissed, as only Mom could get pissed, until I told her to look around. We were on the porch of the Mountain House, with the rain dancing off the lake below and off the roof above us. And everybody was there, because it was raining, and there was nowhere else to go. At the 40th and 50th Anniversary Weekends, my brothers and sisters and their families went their own way during the day and met up at meals. Now we were all stuck together, just talking, enjoying each others’ company. But I told her, If the sun was shining you’d be sitting here by yourself. You paid for all these people. Now you get to see them. And more importantly, you get to talk to them. Enjoy it.
She thanked me for changing her attitude. And though the pain she was in wouldn’t quit, and it was tough for her to keep up, she knew she had lived her dream. She had pulled it off. She got the band together to rock Mohonk Mountain House one last time.
Mookie and The Dude and I went out to see them about a week and a half before she died, a few days before I got to tell her the incredible saga of how her favorite dog rescued a kitten. We took her and my fahter outside to the patio of the nursing home – it drove her crazy that she couldn’t go outside any time she damn well pleased – and we sat and we talked.
And we did go to Copake Falls Day and did everything we always do and nobody died that day. The next day, Sunday August 19th, I brought my father to the hospital to see my mother. It was not the first time I had done that. The other times, she got a little better and they released her. This time, as my father sat with my mother, the doctor consulted me with the results of all the tests they had done. The short version was that she had pneumonia, and when combined with all the things that were already wrong with her, she would probably be gone within a week. And then I got to walk back into the hospital room where my mother slept and my father watched, and I, the forty-nine year old baby of the family, got tell him that the woman he had loved for nearly 70 years was dying.
I tried for a good five minutes. He wasn’t getting it. He didn’t want to get it. I went to get the doctor. He tried for another five minutes. Dad finally acknowledged what we were telling him. The doctor left the room and we sat in silence for as minute. He didn’t cry. I don’t think I cried. We’re not really criers. He just said something that will stay with me forever, something I say every time I try to acknowledge someone’s grief and express my sympathies. You know what my father said when he found out my mother was dying? He said: “No matter how much time you have, you always want a little more.”
Mom woke up long enough to talk to me a little bit. She was back to being responsive, at least for about ten minutes of every hour. I told her that I we had gone to Copake Falls Day the day before and she understood, and she was happy to hear it. She’d never been to Copake Falls, but she knew I loved it, so she loved it. After I gave them some time alone, I brought Dad back home. On the way out of the hospital, we stopped for a little snack and a coffee to go for the driver at the cafeteria. My dad wandered away for a minute and came back with the biggest black and white cookie I’ve ever seen in all my life. I thought that was a very intelligent response to situation. A yin-yang full of sugar. I drove home to tell Joanie Duffy’s youngest daughter-in-law and youngest grandson that they had to come back with me tomorrow and say goodbye.
We wanted to do something special, and since The Dude was seven years old and was really impressed with his own reading ability, we prepped him to read one of Mom’s favorite poems to her, W.B. Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Inisfree.” Once he started reading, she started reciting it from memory right along with him, right through to the end. It was an amazing thing to witness. Mom was an high school English teacher – “a goddamn good English teacher”- as she told me in confidence on her deathbed. She loved literature, but she also loved all kinds of music and all kinds of art, and she kept everything she had ever experienced in her head right until the last day. I could’ve played “Name That Tune” with her as she was dying of pneumonia and she would’ve batted 1.000.
Trisha took The Dude for a little walk around the hospital so Mom and I could have some one on one time. That fifteen minutes or so was great theater. There were certain people in her inner circle that Mom would feel comfortable enough with that she would curse like a sailor when she got together with them. I was fortunate to be one of those people. We regularly laced our conversations with f-bombs and characterized people as assholes and pieces of shit, usually Republicans. So I should have been ready for her last little bit of passive-aggressive snarkiness, as it was one of the great gifts she passed on to her youngest boy.
I told her I was sorry. I was sorry for all the times I got annoyed at her, that I should have been more patient, no matter what I was up against. because the pain she had suffered in the last ten years of her life was a monster, all the more monstrous because her mind had stayed so sharp. I was especially sorry for not taking the time to call more often, or for chasing her off the phone. “Or lettin’ that goddamn answering machine pick up.” she added. Yeah, that too.
I told her I was sorry and I hoped she could forgive me. She looked straight at me through all the pain and the fog and hung the wiseass smirk that I learned so well from her. “Naaaaah,” she said, “Fuck you. I’m takin’ that one to my grave.”
I believe I replied with something along the lines of, “well played, old lady.” It didn’t matter. She had a heart as big as an Adirondack mountain, and she loved me with all of it, every day from May of 1963 on. We shared music and poetry and baseball and art and gardening and animals and food and all the things that make your life your life. She taught me what living is. But she also took no shit. She’d hit you with the verbal frying pan to the head with no mercy if you had it coming. And I had it coming.
Later, she told my sister, “I think this is really hard on John. He’s still my baby you know.” She knew.
By the time I got out on Wednesday, she wasn’t talking anymore. They had moved her from the hospital back to hospice care at the nursing home so my father could be with her. They talked Wednesday morning, somebody took Dad to lunch, and when they got back, she wasn’t talking anymore. and she died late Thursday night. I didn’t bring Mookie to see her before she died, because of all the people who would’ve said what the hell are you bringing a dog in here for, but I brought him to see Grandpa as we all gathered Friday morning to start the send off.
She had a great turnout for an 82-year-old woman who had moved 50 miles from her home. Well over a hundred people. One of her oldest friends, a nun, said to me, “we have a new saint.”
I can’t help it. She made me what I am. I smiled and chuckled and said, “well…I don’t know about that.” Not quite sure how the nun actually took that, but she smiled back.
It was tough on The Dude. I could see it in his eyes when he saw her at the wake. I lost my own Grandma Duffy – Molly Gerahty Duffy of County Longford, Ireland- in 1971, at the same age he was in 2012. They wouldn’t let me see her at the wake. I had to sit outside. But I snuck a look at her lying in the coffin, and the image stays with me to this day. We decided that there was no point to shielding The Dude from anything. And it was actually gratifying to see him show raw, unguarded, profound human emotion, and gratifying to know that he loved his Grandma Duffy deeply and would never forget her. She had worried that he would never get to know her. She worried about a lot of stuff that never happened. She passed that one on to me as well.
I sang and played one of her favorite songs at her funeral: “Morning Has Broken”. I also wanted to perform “Four Strong Winds”, which she loved: “‘Cause our good times are all gone / and I’m bound for movin’ on/ I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.” (How many people do you know whose mothers asked them to mix them CD’s?). The nice people at the Catholic church would not accept “Four Strong Winds” at a funeral mass, but “Morning Has Broken” is on the acceptable list – “in the canon” as they put it to me. I thought it was kind of funny that it was written by a guy named Yusef Islam.
And when it was all over, when she was buried in the Scully Plot at St. John’s Cemetery, I was able to let my mind wander across the whole course of events of her final month, and back over her whole life. I don’t know where I was when a magical thought occurred to me. I was probably in the backyard on Duffy’s Creek that she loved so much. I thought about her incredibly stubborn insistence that she get to The Mohonk Mountain House that summer. I thought about how she rolled her eyes when she talked about how her own mother believed she could dictate the terms of her own death.
“But you did.” I said to her memory. “You went out like a rock star. You knew your body could never handle that trip, and you were in awful pain the whole time, but you did it anyway, ’cause nobody was going to tell you you couldn’t live while you were still alive. You wrote your own script.”
Most of this is a re-run for some of you. Heck, it’s August. Read it again. Why not. Back in the Summer of 2011, my buddy David Sabatino, aka Mr. Valley Stream Himself, suggested that I write something for the Valley Stream Voices column in the local Herald Newspaper. And I said, yeah, I could do that. David was helping out the editor at the time, Andrew Hackmack, who did a great job covering the town for a lot of years. Andrew asked him to find someone who could do a Voices column, and David said, “John Duffy.” And I’m glad he did.
I decided to try to capture the experience of raising a child in the same town I grew up in. I painted the place in a very positive light, and overall, I was happy with the way it came out. Andrew wrote the headline, “Valley Stream is Better Than Ever,” which was not totally misleading, as it was the general theme of the essay, but I thought it that message was a little too advertising slogan-y. Life is pain, your highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something. There are a lot of things that aren’t better: First and foremost that we’re all packed in like sardines, and they keep building more and higher sardine cans to pack more people in.
There happens to be a reason for that. At some point, the Long Island Rail Road, which my wife Trisha subjects herself to twice a day to earn a living, is eventually going to finish a connection to Grand Central Station and the East Side of Manhattan. And when that day comes, lots more people are apparently going to want to live in apartment buildings near the railroad stations, specifically Valley Stream and Gibson. And I suppose the ten minutes it takes me to go two miles to the King Kullen some afternoons will turn into fifteen. They built a monster of an apartment building less than a mile from Duffy’s Creek – called Sun Valley Apartments. Ugh. – that I and many people raised hell about when it went up, because it looked like a cross between a Bronx tenement and an upstate prison. They recently did a nice crown molding all the way around the top of it to make it less ugly. That was nice of them.
Trisha and I would really like to leave here, but we can’t. We’d like to move to Copake Falls, or somewhere nearby. Valley Stream, and Long Island in general, have become ridiculously crowded and dirty and noisy. But this is where work is for both of us, and we both have many years invested in our jobs. We also have an 11-year old son who has trouble transitioning from pajamas to clothes every single morning. He doesn’t do change very well, and the fact is, this is a good place to grow up, because you’re forced to learn how to get along with a whole lot of different kinds of people. It wasn’t that way when I was growing up. There were a lot of bigoted white people trying to turn me into one of them. If not for my parents being bleeding-heart liberals, they might have made more of a dent. When the town started to diversify, around the turn of the century, the bigots mostly ran like hell, leaving people who know how to get along for the most part. It’s not the people that make me want to leave. I love the people here. There’s just too damn many of them. So The Dude has about ten years to save his money if he wants to buy this house and “stay here forever” as per his plan. We’re not leaving anytime soon, and we’re very good at making lemonade out of the lemons, but in about twelve years this blog will be called, “A Creek Ran Through It.”
Anyway, here we are, and what follows is my little public love letter to Valley Stream, written four years ago. My favorite thing about this essay is that the mayor of Valley Stream, a very smart, energetic and friendly fellow named Edwin Fare (that’s right, Mayor Fare) has borrowed a phrase that was the anchor of the whole piece. I don’t know how terribly original it was, but I referred to Valley Stream as a “big small town”, which it is if you’re an old timer. You’re usually about three degrees of separation from anyone you start a conversation with – they went to school with someone you know, or lived on the same street, or went to the same church, or played on the same team, or at the very least got drunk in the same bar. Mayor Fare used the phrase in an interview with Newsday and in a recent Cablevision-produced video. I believe that he unconsciously lifted it from me. I saw him just today walking around the pool. I’ve never said to him, “Hey! That’s my line!”, since for one thing what does it matter and for another thing he’d just tell me it isn’t, ’cause he took it. Fact is, he needs it more than I do. (What I did say to him was, “you ought to jump in! It’s like a bathtub in there today!” Which was just me being folksy, as he was wearing street clothes).
So without further ado, the Valley Stream Voices Column from 2011 that I would have simply entitled: “Whooosh!!!”, with a little postscript at the end. Hope you enjoy it (again):
I am a second-generation Valley Streamer. Many of you just said, “me, too!” There are a lot of us. My parents moved from Queens in 1955 for a backyard on a creek and room for their growing family. Five kids and 46 years later, in 2001, they moved east and my wife and I bought the house where I grew up. Two years later, in my 40th year, our son Jack was born, a third-generation Valley Streamer.
In my new role as Jack’s daddy, I began to realize how many of the icons of my childhood were unchanged, and how Valley Stream remains a big small town and a good place to grow up. In my opinion, it’s actually better than in the ’60s and ’70s.
When I was a kid, my mother might announce that we were “going to town.” That meant driving in our red Volkswagon bus (seriously, we had one) over to Rockaway Avenue. The first stop was Morris Variety, then, as now, a place where a little kid could be enraptured by the impressive assortment of stuff; where you could get lost in the long aisles of toys, hardware and craft supplies while mom picked through greeting cards, then memorize the candy at the front counter while she checked out. Going to town might also include lunch at Itgen’s, Mitchell’s or Ancona, and maybe a walk up to Sal and Vin’s for haircuts, a swing by the library or a stop at the bank with the big vault that looked like the one Maxwell Smart walked through.
Today, going around Valley Stream with my son, there are times when I’m suddenly traveling in a time machine (I can even hear a “Whoosh!” sound in my head when it happens). I can reconnect with my inner little kid, the one that we all tend to leave behind and disregard, as we get older and our boundaries expand far beyond “going to town.”
One of the first places Jack and I went when he was a baby was Brook Road Park in Mill Brook. (Sorry, but it’ll always be Green Acres to me.) When my older siblings were all in school and I was home with my mother, she would push me there in a stroller over the bridge. (The bridge was first fenced off and then taken down, to the dismay of many old-timers.) Coming back 40 years later with my little boy was one of my first trips into my personal Valley Stream Time Machine, one of many enjoyable travels that I’ve taken back to my childhood through my son. After admiring the new playground equipment, we walked by a fence that holds back the eroding retaining wall along the creek. Behind the fence were relics of my pre-school days — the big dolphin you could sit on, and the concrete turtle you could crawl under, both on a bouncy rubber surface. And there was the very bench where my mother sat enjoying my company, wearing ’60s-style cat’s-eye glasses.
As Jack grew into a toddler, we joined the Valley Stream Pool. As a kid, I remember the kiddie pool area shaded by mottled Sycamore trees, like the ones still in the playground. My mother was a part of a group of women with lots of children who jokingly called themselves the “Over the Hill, Under the Tree Club.” On summer days, they could have some much-needed peace and adult conversation as the kids entertained themselves.
There was a probably a 30-year interval between my last visit to the pool as a kid and my first as a dad. As I stood next to the Olympic pool, “Whoosh!” I was in the time machine again — going under water with my eyes open, daring myself out into the deep end, jumping off the diving board, eating a hot dog and French fries under the concession stand roof. It all comes back to me, like opening a book you haven’t read in years and remembering how much you liked the story. The French fries taste exactly the same.
Jack likes going to town. He’s well-known at Morris Variety, and Michael at Sal and Vin’s always makes him look great. We recently had Itgen’s for lunch and Ancona for dinner with a trip to the pool in between. Jack and his mom both like mint chip ice cream. I’m a vanilla fudge guy. Ancona meatball parmesan heroes are sublime.
This year, I made some new friends in my old town. While looking for dog parks for our new Labrador puppy, I found Envision Valley Stream, a group that promotes ideas for fostering a sense of community, including park clean-ups, graffiti removal and the skate park and dog park initiatives which the village administration has been receptive to. It’s nice to meet people of all ages and backgrounds who like living here. And it’s very nice to see the local government working with residents to make good ideas happen.
Jack is going into second grade at Carbonaro School. It was a warm and nurturing place when I went there and it still is. This year, he played baseball with the Valley Stream Little League. I played on a Mail League team in the ’70s, so of course the “Whoosh!” brought me right back as I stood on the ball fields of Barrett Park, Wheeler Avenue and others. We marched with the Little League in the Memorial Day parade, my first since the ’70s. The sense of community here is as strong as ever. And a one-time reputation for intolerance has been replaced by a diversity of people who interact easily with each other. This is something my son will have which my generation did not. His big small town is a lot like mine, but better, and I’m glad we’re here.
Ok, I’m back here in 2015. Christ, I’m tired. The Dude doesn’t go to Carbonaro anymore because the class where he fits best is across town in an identical building called William L. Buck. (The Dude calls the similarity “freaky”). We’re a long way removed from little league, and I’m a happy observer of the Memorial Day Parade. The Dog Park is a raging success, mostly due to the efforts of others besides myself, but I feel a sense of ownership of the place, and so do Mookie and his Dude. You’ve gotta like that. “Envision Valley Stream” is in the process of morphing into the Greater Valley Stream Civic Association, in which I’m trying to carve out the time to take an active role. (I’m the liaison for the “part of South Valley Stream that isn’t Mill Brook or Gibson even though Gibson built the houses but don’t you dare call it North Woodmere” -Our Man On The Creek, if you will).
Yeah, we want out. And we more than likely will get out someday. We won’t be able to afford to stay when we’re too old. They’ll eat us alive. But for now, me and My Dude still go to the pool most weekday afternoons in the summertime. And we’ll be getting our haircuts at Sal and Vin’s tomorrow. And lunch or dinner at Ancona is never far away. (John! You Called?). When we finally do leave Valley Stream, when it’s all over, will I miss it? (I have to speak for myself, as Trisha has been here for 15 of her years and I’ve been here for all 52 of mine, more or less). Will I romanticize it like my mom did when she left kicking and screaming?
I don’t know. Places are funny like that. It’s like the line from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, when the creepy guy is giving the dorky guy his dating advice: “Wherever you are – it’s the place to be! – Isn’t this great?” I tend to live in the present tense (which is why we’re broke), so if I were living upstate, I don’t think I’d give it much thought. I think the toughest thing about leaving would be the legacy that I’d be ending that started with my parents in 1955. My mom DID miss it when she left, so I’d miss it for her.
Speaking of my Mom, if you’ve never met her, you’ll have a chance to get to know her a little bit in my next post. Anybody would tell you that would be your lucky day. And coincidentally, that upcoming post is also about a kitten who had a very lucky day because he decided to follow a big yellow dog one day on Duffy’s Creek. It’s not so complicated, but I’ll probably tell the story in a way to make it so. I got that gift from Mom. I’m long-winded and I need an editor. But at least I came by it honestly.
Read it anyway, and thanks. See you when the tide comes in.
We grow a lot of flowers here on Duffy’s Creek. And trees, and bushes, and vegetables. And we’ve spent way, way too much money doing it. And it takes a lot of time and grunting to maintain what we’ve done from year to year. But I tell you what: I’ve walked around a lot of neighborhoods with Mookie Dog these last four years, and I’ve gotten a good look at a lot of peoples’ properties while Mookie sniffed and peed on the nearest telephone poles (The Dude gets credit for coming up with: “he’s reading his pee mail.”). In the world of property ownership, and what a wonderful world it is, I have come to believe that people who have flowers growing around their house are the people who look like they’re enjoying their stay on Earth a bit more than the people who don’t. And they probably are. I know I am. Of course if the homeowner is elderly or disabled it isn’t a fair statement, but still, if you can grow some flowers and you don’t, it looks to me like you just don’t care in general, and you probably don’t. Is that arrogant? It might be arrogant. Hell, I don’t know. I’d just like to take you on a tour of Gardens @ Duffy’s Creek. You like flowers? We got some flowers for ya today.
It doesn’t matter where we start, since you’re not actually here, so we can start where it all started. Trisha and I bought the old Duffy Family House on The Creek in 2001 from my parents, who moved to a Lifecare Community. My mom kind of went kicking and screaming, mostly because she loved the backyard on the Creek. Trisha’s family owned an operated a Florist and Nursery, McCloskey’s on Woodhaven Boulevard in Rego Park, Queens for 86 years, Her grandfather started out by selling flowers for putting on graves in St. John’s Cemetery across the street. So as soon as she saw the backyard of this place, she knew what she wanted to do with it. The first thing she did was clear a whole lot of crap (her newlywed husband dug up a few tree roots for her) and plant this Hybrid Tea Rose Garden. I love that all the plants have names and little stories, but I can’t keep any of them straight. Still, I like hearing about them. And truly, there’s just nothing like roses. I don’t know what smells you associate with your spouse (Cheese? Cinnamon? Ben-Gay?) but to me the smell of hybrid tea roses, whatever the hell their names are, remind me how much I love my wife. Isn’t that nice?
We have a big six-foot wood stockade fence along the back of the Rose Garden, courtesy of some former psychotic neighbors who will get their own post one of these days. I’ll even name them for you. Anyway, the point at which the rose garden meets the house and the stockade fence is Trisha’s “Secret Garden”, which has more Hybrid Teas, plus some climbing roses and Clematis on arbors and some various perennials, the Lupines being my favorite, if only because of the silly Monty Python sketch. There’s some bitchin’ foxglove in there. And it’s a great place to hide from The Dude.
Around front, you get to Trisha’s Cottage Garden, modeled after a Thomas Kinkade painting if he dropped acid, which has a lot of beautiful perennials and some good smellin’ Mock Orange and Quince, plus this cool guy called a Purple Beautyberry Bush which is owned and defended by an insane Mockingbird.
Me, I always liked playing in the dirt. As a matter of fact, when I was very young in this very backyard I had a “diggy spot.” And when I was 30 and stuck living back with my parents after going through surgery and chemotherapy for testicular cancer, I decided to start a little garden out where my “diggy spot” used to be. And my mom liked planting flowers, too. So one day in 1993 we went to Dee’s Nursery in Oceanside together – which in itself is a great memory – and she sprung for some perennials and bulbs to get that garden started. There’s still a couple of hyacinths that come up every year from that garden, but for the most part it got too shady under my neighbor’s giant oak tree to really get anything good growing there. So after my mom died in 2012, I planted a Colorado Blue Spruce as a memorial to her, thus taking the “diggy spot” out of the active flower gardening area. I’ve never visited her grave, and I don’t know if I ever will. If I need to talk to her, she’s right here.
When we moved back here in 2001, I started noticing the bird, including the ducks and the geese and the other assorted characters – osprey, egrets, kingfishers, terns, herons and cormorants to name a few- who made their living on the Creek. We had a lot of songbirds, too. Unfortunately, one of the reasons was that the whole place was overgrown and they had lots of places to hide. Once we put up some bird feeders, it was madness. One January twilight we had over 20 cardinals dancing around in the snow. We don’t have as many birds now because we had to take down two massive maple trees and a pear tree before they killed us in a hurricane. (And there was one, and they didn’t. And we of course replaced those trees, but these things take time). Back when we started, I wrote down all the species of birds I saw and when I saw them in a spiral notebook (very neatly ’cause I’m OCD), then I looked them up and found out what they were doing here, and what they wanted for dinner. I have a list of about 115 bird species that have passed through or by this property. I will put that list up as a separate post sometime soon. It recently may or may not have helped earned South Valley Stream $3 million dollars in New York Rising Recovery grant money, but that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, around this same time, we started taking hikes through Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is a long way from here but connected by water, and noticing not only the birds but the plants. This led to the Duffy’s Creek Bird Sanctuary. We started trying to use as much garden space as possible for bird-friendly habitat plants and stuff that grew here naturally. This led to the Wetland Gardens that run between the yard and the Creek, which is actually planted on land that belongs to Nassau County. But screw ’em, they don’t deserve it.
In the wetlands are Rosa Rugosa and Red Twig Dogwood and Winterberry Holly, a Weeping Willow Tree, a Butterfly Bush and one of our signature specimens, the Great Leaning Cedar of Duffy’s Creek. It was a four-foot tall Eastern Red Cedar bought from Dee’s Nursery. I really had to wonder about myself when I planted a $139 tree on property that I don’t actually own, but no matter. The Red Cedar got really tall, probably about 15 feet or more. Then Hurricane Sandy came along and knocked it to a 45 degree angle. My brother came down from Connecticut to help us out with the mess about a week after the storm. We raised the Cedar back up and he tied it to the fence using one of the knots that he learned in Boy Scouts and I didn’t. The Cedar survived, but it leans like the Tower of Pisa now. So we call our backyard The Leaning Cedar Cafe @ Duffy’s Creek, ’cause we like the way it sounds.
When we first moved in, we had a deck. It was a very 1970’s deck, probably because it was built in the 1970’s. And it was slowly rotting away. The final straw for the deck was when a cat caught a mallard and left his decapitated head under the step. It was a little too evocative of “The Godfather”, but I digress again. Around that same time, we took a day trip from Copake Falls to visit the Stockbridge Botanical Gardens in Stockbridge, Mass. Here we met some of the “Herb Associates”, whose name still inspires giggle fits around here. Basically a bunch of old ladies who planted and maintained an herb garden just off the kitchen of the house at the gate of the Gardens.
We were already planning to replace the deck with a loose-laid brick patio. The “Herb Associates” inspired us to include a little garden with some sage and lavender and thyme and oregano and mint. And then we just kept going, and started adding lots of cool perennials, dahlias and zinnias from seed.
Soon enough it was the insane garden you can see in the foreground of this picture. Some of the coreopsis and rubekia and hellenium and Mexican Sunflowers grow over six feet tall. We call them by their latin name: “Crazius Bastardus.” The patio garden is our landing place. It’s the nicest room in the house in the summer, and consequently, we watch a lot less TV. It’s where you sit and stare for five minutes – or an hour- when you’re between things you have to do, or walk around and crush leaves between your fingers, take a big whiff and say, “damn that’s good!” At least we do.
As you can see, the patio garden has some nice bee balm. And when you have perennials, you can make the same jokes at the same time every year. As soon as one of us mentions that the bee balm is coming into bloom, the other will either do a Monty Python falsetto and say, “Whatcha bringin’ a balm in here for!” or do the Jackie Childs voice from Seinfeld. “A balm? Nobody know what a balm will do! They’re unpredictable!” We try to have fun.
Along the side of the house this year I have some, OK a thousand, black eyed susans growing quite untidily. Usually I insist on tidy, but I’m letting them have their fun. Last year I planted a thousand black-eyed susan seeds in the Wetlands and in this spot, where I was out of ideas, and in one year they have naturalized and become our own resident wildflower. They are pretty weeds. God bless ’em.
We also have eight blueberry bushes in large planters which have been producing phenomenal fruit for us and the Robins, Catbirds, Song Sparrows and Mockingbirds for ten years now.
During the Hurricane Sandy storm surge, the blueberry bushes floated on down the block. We found them the next day on various front lawns around the neighborhood. A neighbor with a van brought us two that he found at the high school at the end of the street, about a quarter of a mile away. We have a dog kennel that we bought when we first got Mookie, but that he decided he didn’t like one damn bit because we weren’t in there with him. We were going to sell it, then we realized it would come in handy in the next Hurricane as a place to put anything that might float away down the street.
Hurricane Sandy (I hate “Superstorm”) didn’t do the damage to us here in South Valley Stream as it did in points south, specifically East Rockaway, Oceanside, Island Park and Long Beach, which all got walloped. But it did take out some of our favorite specimens. We had two little Christmas trees growing on the side of the garage, a Frasier Fir and a Balsam Fir. We were going to make them our last two Chistmas Trees here someday if we had a choice in the matter. But the brackish water from the surge killed them, as well as a Mountain Laurel that had survived for 60 years and two outrageously beautiful Burkwood Viburnum bushes outside the front window. But when life hands you lemons and all that, we turned the space along the garage into a nice vegetable garden, where we’ve started feeding ourselves as well as the birds. We have carrots, celery, broccoli and cucumbers growing there now. I use the cucumbers to make homemade bread and butter Pickles, because I can. Actually because I jar, but no matter. The best part of making bread and butter pickles for me is being able adopt Robin Williams’ silly, exaggerated Scottish accent and scream at my wife, “Damn it, Woman! I’m makin’ The brine right now!” I never get tired of that one.
Of course, every good gardener knows that you go through a lot of experimentation and a lot of failure on your way to creating a successful patch. That’s the thing that Thomas Jefferson and I have in common most of all. The spot outside the front window has seen and lost Two holly bushes, the aforementioned Viburnum, a peach tree that was really cool but was under constant siege from Ants, Squirrels and Fungus (which may have been the name of a Warren Zevon album). I also planted and moved an Eastern Red Cedar and a Crabapple Tree from that spot after I decided they each looked better somewhere else.
Our resident Insane Mockingbird decided he like the Eastern Red Cedar so much he planted another one on the opposite side of the front lawn, and it has grown almost as big as the first.
And this leads me to one of my favorite things about this whole 14 year experiment in floral hedonism that we’ve got going on here. Two years ago, I decided I would just fill up the spot in front of the window with flowers. I threw in some zinnias and gladiolas and dahlias and lilies and phlox that I grew from seed. As usual, I spent too much money that could have gone towards fixing the house itself, like say, a roof for instance. And after I do all that, and it all grows in, the most impressive flowers in the whole business are the a deep orange multiflower sunflowers that were planted by my friends the goldfinch.Who are busy eating the seeds of it and pooping them out to make sure they come back next year.
So if you’re walking by our house (And your dog is reading his pee mail) you might notice a nice display of flowers growing outside. And if you knock on the door and ask, we’ll show you round the back. And you’ll say, these people, they seem to have a pretty good life here, and we do. And because we do, we praise God with a thousand flowers every year, because we care, and we’re trying to enjoy our time here on Earth. And we like birds. And it smells good.
And if you’ve got a couple of geraniums in pots on your front step, and you keep them watered, well you’re all right with me.