The Kid at Stewart’s

I wanted a small coffee. I drink decaf, and at Stewart’s, they have three or four kinds in various carafes sitting on hotplates on the counter. You can pour whatever kind you want into whatever size cardboard cup you want, and add however much milk, cream, etc., you want from a small, adjacent refrigerator. I figured I’d be in and out in two minutes, if I was lucky.

I was not lucky.

The kid, about 16 years old, was new; I could tell by his quickness and efficient eagerness. He wasn’t about to lollygag or chat, like the other two employees — older women who were scooping ice-cream for other customers. He was that smart kid from science class who is full of algorithms. So when the tall, insulated carafe sputtered and wheezed within a moment of my pushing on its lever and I called to him, “Are you all out of decaf?” I knew he would jump right on it.

He did.

“I’ll make you a new pot,” he said, striding towards me. Almost in one swift move, he opened the lid of the empty carafe, spun around and swung it into position under the coffeemaker behind him, yanked a metal basket from its little “shelf” in that coffeemaker, and dumped the old paper filter with its wet grounds into the trashcan below by pounding the basket once, good and hard, on the edge of that can. Then he placed a new filter in the basket and finally, grabbed a sparkling new foil packet of decaf coffee grounds.

Here is where his troubles began.

You could see by the faces and the little animal noises he made (Carol Burnett, where are you?), as well as the color he was turning as he tried to open that packet, that he was in over his head. Holding it waist-high and bending a bit at the knees, he tried to rip open the crimping at the top; failing at that, he raised it to shoulder height and tried again. Then he decided to try to pull the packet apart by its seams, like you and I sometimes do with the plastic bags inside cereal boxes.

I knew what was going to happen. I didn’t think I knew; I knew. Remember the old sitcom “Alice,” where Flo is trying to open a box of straws and finally it “explodes” all over Mel’s diner? I didn’t want to miss this, so I kept watching.

Only the coffee packet wouldn’t open, even for the sake of comedy. The kid’s eyes darted from side to side; I’m sure he was looking for a pair of scissors. There were none. So he did exactly what you and I would have done; he turned his back hoping no one could see, and bit the damn thing.

He tugged on it while its edge was between his teeth; still no luck. He shoved it farther into his mouth and poked one edge over to the side so it would lie right between his top and bottom molars. Now he had it. It ripped apart with just a minimal amount of spit and foil falling into the filter, and when he pushed the “On” button I knew I’d lost my chance to yell, “Kiss my grits!”

Victorious and back in Efficiency mode, he walked toward me and pointed at my small cup with a half-inch of now-cold coffee in the bottom.

“Want to give me that?” he asked. Oh, nice, I thought: He’s going to dump out this old, nasty, bottom-of-the-barrel coffee so I can fill it up with fresh. As I handed the cup to him, he continued, “…so I can hold it right under the coffeemaker and then you don’t have to wait for the whole carafe to fill up?”

“Sure,” I said, though in truth I could have stayed there, watching Mr. Efficiency, all day.

Preserve Me

Here’s a poem i wrote for the visit of Elizabeth Gordon, a really great slam poet, to the Newburgh Free Library a few nights ago. i performed it miserably, but NOW i’ve got it down. Anyway, here it is:

Preserve Me

Sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol too – and here’s more stuff on which to chew:

Cellulose fiber, cellulose gum, carageenan (yum yum yum),

Aspartame with citric acid (Mangia, please! Approval tacit!)

Glucose, fructose, sucrose, more; polydextrose (my tongue’s sore!)

Maltitol benzene? And what the hell’s “datem”? You hardly know just how to rate ’em.

Mono- and di-glycerides; can we ever stem the tides?

BHA and BHT; guar gum for you and me.

Calcium proprionate – I can’t believe what I just ate.

The boxes ladle out advice they want us all to follow,

But always add a grain of salt – and then don’t swallow.



Crosby, Still and Nash Lied

Two thoughts winged (wanged?) their way into my head as i sat this week watching birds for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch. Both were about how birding has affected my life both for better and for worser.

The first was a triumphant memory: Just recently, on my way home from a City Council Work Session, i was listening on my car radio to an episode of the NPR show, “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me.” When i tuned in, they were at the point where the three celebrity panelists were telling tall tales only one of which is true, and the callers have to guess which one it is. Well, one panelist was saying that somewhere down South some people, as in the Hitchcock movie “The Birds,” had actually been attacked by — she said — “starlings and spotted grosbeaks.” I knew in a flash that that couldn’t be the true story, because there’s no such thing as “spotted grosbeaks!” And i was right. So! Tweet that, baby! See how much i’ve learned from studying my field guides?

The second thought i had was not as felicitous: It turns out that one of my all-time favorite songs, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, contains a similarly fictitious bird name. In fact, two of them. Remember these lines? “Chestnut-brown canary / Ruby-throated sparrow / Sing a song / Don’t be long / Thrill me to the marrow.”
Well again, there is no such thing as a chestnut-brown canary, and no damn ruby-throated sparrow either. Of course, it’s poetry. i get that. And these lines follow the lines, “I’ve got an answer; / I’m going to fly away.” So, you know … Stephen Stills can make up a color and species, and a name that rhymes with “marrow” if he wants to … It’s a song, right? A damn good song, too.

It’s just funny that for, like, 50 years, i never noticed those made-up birds.


Popolopen Gorge, Popolopen Torne

Here, mostly to see if i can do it, is a photo from a hike i’ve taken at least twice — once with Rachel and once with Tim. It’s really my favorite sign on any hike i’ve done so far.

It’s posted at the side of a road when you’re about halfway up Popolopen Torne (see the full description at


Pretty great, right?




Citizen Science

Twice a week, I sit at my dining room table with my tools, to wit: my binoculars; my Cornell bird-counting sheet; my drawing pad, pencil, pencil sharpener and Helix Professional Pencil-Cap eraser; my kitchen timer, set to 32 minutes; my rotten potato to throw at the squirrels; and my steaming hot cup of Constant Comment tea with a great big teaspoon of sugar in it.

What am I doing with all this paraphernalia? I am doing my Citizen Science for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and don’t think I don’t like saying that. I say it with pride, even though my daughter doubles over, wincing and doing a spit-take, every time.

“Mom! That is the nerdiest thing anyone could possibly say!” she … uh … reminds me.

But I don’t care. I’m old, and this is what I do. I do my Citizen Science. Without me (and several hundred thousand others like me), Cornell couldn’t collate and analyze our results each year; they wouldn’t know if house finches are disappearing from the Northeast or not, and if so where the heck they’re going; or if those finches are suffering from eye disease again this year, and if so in what numbers; whether or not we’re having an irruption (yup, that’s the right spelling) of redpolls this winter … and zillions of other bits of data, and what to do about it all.

It occurs to me, as I put my binoculars down and cross out the “8” on the House Sparrow line on my bird-counting sheet and replace it with a “14,” that my father also started watching birds in his old age. He had a feeder behind his kitchen in his last (Slingerlands, N.Y.) house, and he would run to the window and call out, “Look! There’s a cardinal!” And he would smile and stare at it even as he added more quietly, “Aren’t they beautiful? They’re very common.”

I think I know how he felt. Cardinals are very common at backyard feeders in the Northeast; I too can’t take my eyes off them, and they always make me smile. And I think he liked being authoritative; he had a very old Petersen’s Bird Guide, which I inherited, and he read every page, even the parts about California condors and roadrunners and other birds he knew he’d never get to see, because it covered the whole U.S. and he was already old. He just liked knowing all about what he called “my little birdies.” And dad loved his Constant Comment.

If you call me on Sunday or Monday mornings from now through March, you’ll have to leave a message. I’ll be at my dining room table with all my tools arrayed before me, doing my Citizen Science.

(Note to files: I must ask Cornell if it invalidates the data if you get up in the middle of birdwatching to chuck a potato at the squirrels that hog the feeders. I vaguely recall from the one science class I ever took in college that there’s some theory called — Heimerdinger’s Cat? Schroedermacher’s Uncertainty Principle? – something with a funny name like that. I flunked the course, but loved it because of that funny name. And now, what was it? Anyway, I’m sure this theory said that you invalidate your results if you interject yourself into the thing you’re investigating. I must find out if I’m to let the squirrels have their way with my feeder, or if it’s OK to get up and hurl a few spuds at them.)


Tim and i had a wonderful hike — one that i’d been dreaming of doing for years — this fall. On Oct.  17, we did the entire Breakneck Ridge Loop . Meteorologists among you, check your records: It was the most beautiful day in the world. Early-ish in the morning, i had a strong feeling that for me, this was Now or Never for the Breakneck Ridge Loop. i had been up as far as the POW/MIA flagpole at least twice: once with just Tim, i believe, or maybe with just Rachel and/or my friend Raja Abdul-Rahim from the Record, and once with all three of them, for sure. Each time, i was so exhausted and frightened by that part of the hike that looking up at the much-steeper section straight ahead at the flagpole was too much for me, and i chickened out.

But this time, we did it! Tim is such a trooper: At the flagpole, he pointed out that there were lots of dopey, college-looking kids and 20-somethings climbing all around us while chatting away, the females of whom were talking in that awful “Uptalk” way that i despise (“I’m like, ‘You’re more of a brother to me?”  And he’s like, ‘But I don’t wanna be your brother?” And I’m like, ‘Oh-my-God?” (To which her companion replies, “Right?”) Most importantly, he noted at two or three critical junctures that whatever i decided (bailing out onto any of the at least four or five “alternative routes” marked, “Easier Ascent,” or continuing to try to find foot- and hand-holds so i could haul my raggedy ass over the steep boulder i was trapped on) would be fine with him. That gave me courage to go on. And, we did it the hardest way possible! i was (and remain, obviously) soooo proud of myself. And of Tim, for being so supportive. Without him, i never would have made it.

Not that it was easy for him, either. We thought and thought about whether he should take the hiking poles i’d given him; this hike requires two hands and two feet for at least 50% of the distance, so we were thinking no, but then it’s also got a long downhill, much of which is very steep, when you finally reach the top, so we were thinking yes. Plus, he could always put them into my pack when he didn’t need them. They weigh nothing and fold up to about  two feet long. (Sadly, that’s a few inches more than can fit into either of the two little packs we brought, but you can bungee-cord them onto the back of a pack just fine.) He ended up bringing them and carrying them, uselessly, folded up, in one hand for almost all of the ascent. i forget why he refused to put them into or bungee-cord them onto my pack, but i think it’s spelled  S-T-U-B-B-O-R-N. i asked him many times to put them into my pack, but he just wouldn’t. A funny moment occurred when we were sitting down taking a breather and a guy passing us couldn’t resist saying to Tim with a grin, “How are those hiking poles working out for you?”

We saw many interesting folks along the way, and believe it or not, we were helpful to more than a few who had come without maps (how stupid is that?). Because we had done the Sugarloaf Mountain-Breakneck Ridge hike in September (more than twice as WayAboveFlagpole  long, but nowhere near as steep; almost no scrambling required) in the same general area, we were able to tell some people how far they were from a crucial left turn onto the red-blazed trail that takes you to the yellow-blazed Wilkinson Trail and ultimately, back down to Rt. 9D. So i was feeling pretty, pretty, pretty good as we trod downward, knees aching but hearts light. Let’s see if i can “upload” or “link to” or whatever the word is, some photos from that wonderful day.

NiceViewOf Bannermans Castle  LookingSouthFrom Flagpole

DSCN0777YES We're at the Top


Sharp-Shinned Hawk!

i know it’s one of the most common hawks you can find in New York State, but it gets an exclamation point from me because i’d never spotted one (or at least, never recognized one) before … until today.

i was doing my citizen science for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (and i know how cringe-worthy that sounds: i can hear my daughter’s eyes rolling from here), sitting at my dining room table as i do twice a week — two consecutive days, per the instructions from Cornell. i sit there next to my window, all cozy with my hot tea; binoculars; photocopied “score sheet” with my most-likely-to-see species written in, but with plenty of room to write in others; my little drawing pad; pencil with one of  my cool new Helix erasers that i bought online, paying about $3 for all 10 of them and then (dammit) $8 for the shipping; and my sharpener. What we Citizen Scientists do for Cornell is simply count the birdies of the various species who come to our feeders (i have four feeders) and record the highest number of each species we see over the two-day period.

As always i was just watching and counting and sketching and occasionally getting up to run and open my back door to yell, “Get!” ineffectually to the squirrels who continually attack the suet feeder, and frequently saying to myself, “Gee, this is pleasant! This is really pleasant! Thank you, God!” etc.

i was actually writing or sketching something when i heard a loud rustling sound out there. In my peripheral vision, i could tell it was a bigger birdie than the chickadees, sparrows, titmice, downy woodpeckers and nuthatches that i’d been otherwise seeing, but as i whipped around in my chair i expected to see a blue jay. Instead, there, settling on a branch near my black-oil sunflower seed tube feeder, was … a sharp-shinned hawk!

I think!

Small compared to the red-tailed hawks i often see soaring or perched on the sides of our highways, and very beautiful, it had a small head, grey back and a long, squarish-tipped tail with several dark horizontal bands across it. Its breast, belly and sides, which i saw when it finally turned a bit toward me, were white and heavily streaked with pretty, reddish-tan stripes (horizontal on the sides, and more vertical down its breast and belly). It had yellow feet, yellow eyes, and a yellow patch right where its small, hooked bill met its forehead.

And now, mustering all the technological prowess i possess, let me see if i can show you one, by pasting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website’s Sharp-Shinned Hawk page here:

Don’t look at the part that implies that it could well have been a Cooper’s Hawk … or the part that notes that sharp-shinned hawks are common as rain. Just try to imagine how happy i am!



You Know You’re Old When … Part 22

You know you’re old when the kid at the checkout counter doesn’t ask you for your ID after you’ve hoisted a case of hard cider onto the conveyor belt.  Today, I even said, “Don’t you want to see my driver’s license?” And he goes, “No; you’re good.”

I said, “Well, i know i’m good, but am i old enough to buy booze?” And, looking at my white hair, he just giggles and says, “Nah, that’s OK; you’re good.”

And then after i paid and put all the bags in my cart, he says, “Would you like help getting that out to your car?” I came this close to throttling him with my left hand. With my right hand, i was steering my cart.

All by myself.

(Jezuz, kid: Aren’t you supposed to ask everybody for their ID? Isn’t that in the Price Chopper Cashiers’ Handbook? Don’t you get fired  if you fail to ask, and doesn’t the store get its license to operate yanked? What if i was part of a sting operation? Jezuz.)


This Is for You, Mary Ann Prokosch

Too many funerals in Newburgh yesterday!

My friend and city activist Mary Ann Prokosch died on Saturday, leaving Newburgh a sadder and needier place. We needed ary Ann’s voice and her wisdom, and now we are left to go it alone.

To honor her memory today, I am just going to try to go out there and be a better human. That’s all i can think of to do.

Off i run to grab my “garbage-plucker” and clean up a block of South Lander Street.

This day is for you, Mary Ann.



Timothy Hayes-El, 1962-2014

I am deeply saddened by the death yesterday morning of Timothy Hayes-El, a well-known and much-loved Newburgher who attended and spoke at virtually every City Council meeting.

His first name, Timothy, comes from the Greek meaning, “Honored by God,” and surely he was so honored, as he devoted his later years to God’s children here in Newburgh. His last name at birth was Hayes, but he adopted the suffix –El, which is one of the Hebrew names of God. God indeed suffused Timothy Hayes-El’s being; he was as striking a person as any prophet. With his tall, erect bearing he resembled a Maasai warrior, and his large, shining eyes could draw the attention of everyone in the room. His voice was as commanding as a preacher’s, and he used that voice often and well, to promote his passion: increasing job opportunities for city residents.

He first impressed me when I was working for the TH-Record under the editorship of Mike Levine, and the paper did a series called something like, “How Do We Fix Newburgh?” Timothy was part of a focus group Mike led on that subject. Timothy gave us a great quote, in which he said something like, “I’m not a ‘resident of Newburgh’; i AM Newburgh.”

He was right: Newburgh is missing a great part of itself today. His passion for this city led him to offer himself as a perpetual candidate; most recently, he ran for the Ward 1 City Council seat in November, losing to Karen Mejia. Two years ago, he ran for Mayor, losing to Judy Kennedy. His activism also inspired many young city residents to register to vote. He served time in prison as a young man but returned to Newburgh determined to keep other black youths out of trouble by helping them get jobs and by advocating for them before the City Council.

Timothy had a variety of health problems and had been on kidney dialysis. He had felt ill on Sunday and did not go to church (a rarity for him); instead, he walked the few blocks from his home on Johnston Street to St. Luke’s Hospital, where he died too soon, too soon, on Monday morning at age 52.

Rest in peace, Timothy Hayes-El, Honored by God.