The pointed question – it wasn’t until much later that I picked up on the dripping disdain that accompanied my oldest daughter’s unexpected query – caught me completely off-guard.
I had just collected Shannan, who’s 10 and going on 17, and her younger sister from the bus stop and we were heading to QuickTrip for a frozen treat on an unseasonably warm February afternoon – 75 degrees is hot even by Charlotte standards. Shannan lost one of her three remaining baby teeth the night before and had amicably agreed to pass on her usual Tooth Fairy compensation in exchange for me treating her and Fionna to the South’s version of the Slurpee, along with a couple of bags of chips.
Apparently, in my ensuing absentmindedness, I had automatically plugged my iPhone into my CRV’s built-in charger, an action that prompts the immediate playing of random selections from my downloaded music.
Miss Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” had been playing for the past minute or so, at a level so low that it had faded into the background music of my life.
But it was loud enough to catch Shannan’s attention – and she wasn’t pleased.
Full disclosure: I didn’t realize until writing this column that it’s spelled “Swiftie” and not “Swifty,” or that, as per the Urban Dictionary, is defined as an “obsessive fan that knows everything about pop/country singer/songwriter Taylor Swift.” That entry is followed by this wonderful example of its use in a not-so-grammatically correct sentence: “Talk bad about Taylor infront [sic] of a swiftie and your [sic] asking for death.”
Though blissfully unaware of the term’s true meaning at the time, I instinctively began backpedaling, insisting that, “NO. I am NOT a ‘Swiftie.”
I pointed out that the offending song was off Miss Swift’s – Yes, I also call Janet Jackson “Miss Jackson,” and no, it’s not because “I’m nasty”—Red album, which was released in 2012.
I stressed that the song came out well before Miss Swift had risen to pop megastar status, and long before millions of fans began to love and adore her.
And before individuals like my 10-year-old daughter began to despise her, apparently.
Shannan would offer no further insight or explanation of her disdain, so I can only assume it follows her established pattern of rebelling against the mainstream.
And that’s cool.
I’ll just have to keep her away from my cellphone as it contains more than two-dozen other tracks sung by Miss Swift, including the entirety of her fifth studio album, 1989, that is named after her birth year.
You know, the same year I was a sophomore in high school.
I guess I am an accidental Swiftie.
Ooh, look what you made me do.
Look what you made me do.
Look what you just made me do.
Look what you just made me.
I cannot recall when we first chatted, but no longer view that as unusual—not in a world where friendships can span hundreds, or even thousands of miles, and two people can be good buds even though they’ve never met in person.
That said, I do know that the first conversation Joey and I had was about whiskey, a mutual obsession that neither of us ever grew tired of discussing with each other. And by discussing, I mean instant messaging and texting, oftentimes daily during the fall months, when all the newest releases were hitting the shelves.
This was well before the infamous “Bourbon Boom,” before everyone, including their great aunts, lost their collective minds and began camping outside retail shops days before the latest Pappy Van Winkles and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bottles were scheduled for release.
It was well before so-called bourbon enthusiasts began clearing the shelves at their local liquor stores, adding hard-to-find bottles to their investment portfolios, or immediately “flipping” them for a profit, rather than opening and enjoying them.
It was also before retailers began catching on to those trends, justifiably jacking up those “suggested retail prices”—so much so that the average person could no longer afford to buy many of them.
It was only five years ago, but feels like a lifetime.
That’s because back then was a much more innocent time in the world of bourbon, when true enthusiasts humbly bragged about their purchases, and later posted pictures of them enjoying their coveted brown juice.
That is how Joey and I met.
He had just scored several sweet vintage bottles that some retailer in Joey’s home state of South Carolina had long forgotten about, leaving them to gather layers of dust in the corner of some basement or storage room. Joey posted several photos of them on a Facebook bourbon enthusiast page, and was immediately envied or cursed by others on the same board. Instinctively jealous, I congratulated him on his find, and he thanked me in kind, sharing that he was shocked at his good fortune.
Our online exchanges about all things bourbon seamlessly evolved into private messages, with one of us typically asking the other for his thoughts on a particular release, or whether a specific bottle was worth the price of admission. Those inevitably led to more personal conversations about family; Joey sharing that he was the unofficial caretaker of his elderly father, whom he affectionately referred to as “The Kraken,” and me being the freshly minted, proud daddy always bragging about the latest accomplishments of his then-young daughters.
Though he never married, Joey—he was never “Joseph,” or even “Joe”—loved and valued his family, and treated his network of close friends as if they were family.
Joey had a huge personality—I often imagined him at the center of lighthearted and good-spirited debauchery occurring some 800 miles from me while I was still living on Long Island. He loved cigars, whiskey and women, though not necessarily in that order, and always seemed to have something fun in the works—at least when he wasn’t distracted by his responsibilities.
Even still, he always managed to make me feel like I was a part of his life, and that cannot help but make one feel special. Joey always made time for you, and could evoke a smile even on the worst of days. His natural ability to make those he chose as his friends always feel like they were the most important person in the room is what made him special.
But it wasn’t until much later, after his tragic death in the summer of 2017, that I came to understand just how large that circle of friends actually was and, equally amazing, how most felt the same way that I did.
I inadvertently earned my way into his inner circle through the trading of bourbon. He had access to things I did not, and vice-versa. Neither of us thought of trying to make money off the other—a rarity, it turns out, in bourbon circles. We were just two friends with a mutual hobby helping each other out whenever we could. It eventually evolved to the point where I would automatically buy two bottles of whatever release I was after—one for me and the other for Joey.
He responded in kind whenever he could, but lamented how it was growing more and more difficult to find allocated bourbon near his hometown of Gaffney. He made up for this by sharing samples of bottles that I would never have the chance of owning and, one Christmas, baked me—what else?—a bourbon-glazed pound cake that was packed with an assortment of bourbon samples, including Blanton’s lines that are only sold to the European and Asian markets, and, being a true southerner, a mason jar filled with moonshine.
We promised each other we’d share a pour whenever one of us was in the other’s neighborhood.
Joey also loved cooking and baking. He once disappeared for two weeks when he drove to the mountains of West Virginia, as uncontrollable wildfires were devastating the region, so he could volunteer as a cook and help feed local firefighters. He was that kind of guy.
However, it was after another unexpectedly successful day of bourbon hunting with his elderly father that Joey’s nickname was born.
Once again equal parts envious and awestruck at my friend’s good fortune, I instinctively quoted my favorite line from the classic flick, The Sandlot, after a photo of his latest score—an assortment of highly coveted bottles—popped up on my cellphone.
“You’re killing me, Smalls!” I wrote, without hesitation.
It wasn’t until after I hit send that I realized I might have inadvertently offended him. By his own admittance, Joey was a “big guy,” a lovable person who women would always affectionately—and accurately—describe as a “teddy bear.”
Still, I thought I had crossed a line and anxiously waited for him to respond.
To my surprise, he immediately embraced his new nickname, explaining that he loved the movie and reference. He then shared that he had come up with a nickname for me, citing all of the times I hooked him up with bottles that he could never find on his own.
“No kidding?” I texted, pleased that I had entered nickname status.
“You’re my Peaches,” he said.
My reaction was exactly what one would expect from a heterosexual and married man who was just called a tender fruit typically associated with a specific part of a woman’s anatomy.
I was silent.
Sensing my unease, Joey quickly offered an explanation, sharing that his parents once owned a large peach farm in South Carolina, and that the term “Peaches” was one reserved for the most special people in their lives. He assured me that there was no hidden message or implication, and that I had earned that nickname because of my generosity to him over the years, and how I never once tried to take advantage of him.
I’ll admit that I reluctantly accepted my nickname, and cringed the very first time he used it on one of the public bourbon boards. That feeling of embarrassment quickly faded and soon I found myself laughing whenever Joey began using a peach emoji, followed by an exclamation point, to tag me on a bourbon-related post.
Life and work, as they often do, began to take their toll on our long-distance relationship. We began to chat less as bourbon prices continued to soar, and we were unable to find the bottles that we loved, let alone two to help the other out. Still, we would always check in with each other every few weeks, sometimes just to say hi or to get an update on the family front.
One of our last exchanges took place in the summer of 2017, three months before my wife and I decided to pull up our lifelong Long Island roots and relocate just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. We were on rocky financial footing at the time, unsure of what to do next, when Joey—as he always managed—offered some comforting words: “I’ve faith you guys will be fine. Think about you often, life just gets in the way of life.”
He was critically injured in a head-on crash less than a week later, an accident that instantly killed the drivers of both vehicles involved. Though Joey was in a medically induced coma, those who loved him knew he would fight and fight to the end, and we were all willing him to do exactly that.
Joey held on for nearly a week before succumbing to his injuries, leaving an enormous hole in the lives of all those who considered him a part of their extended families.
I recall asking another close friend, in the wake of Joey’s death, whether it was strange for me to mourn someone I’ve never met, but felt as close as family. My friend didn’t find it strange at all, pointing out that the traditional rules of friendship no longer apply. He said my feelings of loss and sadness were understandable, and that grieving the loss of a close friend is still grieving the loss of a close friend, no matter the distance that separates the two.
It wasn’t until this past week, some six months after I joined my wife in our new North Carolina home, that I summoned the courage to open my map app and plug in Joey’s old home address.
Seventy-four miles. A 75-minute trip without traffic.
With a pint of dusty Old Charter bourbon—a gift from Joey—and two Glencairns in hand, I made the trip south on Friday to Frederick Memorial Gardens, Joey’s final resting place, to share that pour we had promised each other long ago. His sister, Linda, shared that they had sent Joey off in style, dressing him in his signature outfit that included shorts, a dress shirt, a tie and a jacket. They made sure to bury him with a few bullets—Joey was also a gun lover—and, of course, also sent him off with a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle.
After filling him in on recent events in my life and updating him on the successes of my wife and our now not-so-young daughters, I shared what he already knew—that there are dozens of people like me still struggling with his loss. I told him he probably had no idea how much he meant to those whose lives he touched, and how we all miss him and his unique personality.
We then shared a glass of bourbon, and I returned home.
It is usually around 3 a.m. when my ghosts arrive.
My pre-dawn visitors, whose visits, coincidentally enough, tend to fall after I’ve eaten some type of fried Southern dish or spicy Mexican food the evening before, have traditionally taken the form of my deceased grandparents, jilted lovers and K.C., the 12-year-old son of a former co-worker who passed away a decade ago after a lifelong battle with lymphoma.
Though I feel bad using the word “ghosts,” especially since part of me looks forward to those one-on-one encounters with loved ones I haven’t seen in the flesh for years, there are no other words, at least to my knowledge, to describe those ghostly visitors who routinely break my sleep and invade my thoughts in the dead of night.
What has changed, at least in the past three years, is the frequency of the visits from one particular “ghost” whose life—and tragic death—will forever be entangled with mine.
John’s most recent visit surprised me, though I should have expected it after a late dinner of country fried chicken enjoyed only hours before at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Albany, which was consumed hours after the 135 Travers Stakes was held at Saratoga Springs.
Without any warning, we were both seventh-graders again in shop class. But instead of learning how to make wooden birdhouses, I am sitting quietly as our teacher belittles John for being late and for lacking “discipline.” The latter proved to be a trait that our shop teacher, who no doubt failed miserably in some creative aspect of his life, saw fit to criticize time and time again after learning that John wanted to be a Marine.
“You lack the discipline to be a Marine,” our shop teacher would proclaim, despite the fact that he was way too soft in the middle to know whether or not his hurtful statement was accurate.
The least I can say is that our teacher was wrong: John had what it took to be a decorated Marine, not to mention a loving husband, father, brother, son.
Other times I am haunted by the last time I spoke with John, in the summer of 2001. Though we hadn’t seen each other in years, John was the first cousin of my best friend. We crossed paths, only for a few minutes, at my friend’s house. John, who was recently divorced, could not stay long because he was meeting his fiancée.
He was in great spirits, and I wish I could remember him just like that. But my thoughts, and the knowledge of other events leading to his death, cannot allow that to happen.
It is at the darker times of the night when my imagination wanders and I’m forced to watch, like Scrooge and the ghosts who visited him, as John calls his loved ones from the 101st floor of the World Trade Center minutes after the terrorist attacks on September 11. I listen helplessly as he tells those on the other end of the line about the unbearable heat and the people jumping from windows to escape the flames.
Other times I’m sitting in a bar again on September 12, 2001, trying to console my best friend about his cousin, who had not been heard from since the collapse of the Twin Towers.
Suddenly, without any warning, I’m sitting in a pew listing to a memorial service for John, though no body or remains had yet to be found to comfort his mourning family.
And then it happened.
One day late last month, there was a knock on the door, and John’s family was informed that a medical examiner had positively identified John—at least part of his remains that survived the attack. My best friend did not care how they did it, he was just pleased that his family would have some aspect of closure regarding John’s death.
While also relieved for John’s family, my thoughts, as they naturally do, cannot help but wonder how a medical examiner managed such an incredible feat.
I cannot believe that someone sifted through preserved human remains, as well as thousands of DNA samples, with the faint hope of trying to ease the pain endured by yet another family.
I also wonder who visits him at three in the morning.
*Originally published in the 9/9/04 edition of The Southampton Press
It’s 4:30 a.m. and I’m getting ready to make pancakes.
Waking up at an ungodly hour is what happens when my brain kicks itself into overdrive though my synapses are not misfiring this time due to my ongoing quest to find gainful employment as a freelancer. Rather, it’s the new day of possibilities lying ahead for my two young daughters who, in a few short hours, will board their new bus to begin their first days of school in a brand new district.
Their situation hits close to home as I moved twice in the same school year when I was in the seventh grade, first from Queens to North Babylon and, a few short months later, from North Babylon to Port Jefferson Station.
Anyone who has made such a transition understands its difficulties, as well as the inherent awkwardness that comes with moving on from elementary to middle school—think puberty, pimples and lots of punks.
And then add to the mix that you know no one, and are a natural introvert.
I promised myself back then that I would never subject my children to the same, and it was that promise that played a significant part in our final decision to dig up our New York roots and replant them in North Carolina.
Prior to moving, my wife and I agreed that Shannan, who starts the fifth grade at 8:15 a.m. today, was still young enough to adapt to a change of scenery. She’s still single digits—at least for another six weeks or so—but, more important, will get to enjoy one last year of elementary school before she makes the jump to middle school. The fact that she and her younger sister, who starts the first grade at the same time today, will get to take the same bus and attend the same school for the next 10 months also eased our minds.
So, why am I up extra early and already mixing pancake batter?
It’s because I know that Shannan, a largely independent introvert like her daddy, has been battling the first day jitters for the past week, and possibly longer.
It also means that I broke a promise that I made to myself three decades earlier.
Unlike her younger sibling, who I’ve dubbed our “family ambassador” thanks to her panache and ability to make new friends, Shannan downplays her emotions. She rarely complains, is affectionate but on her own terms, and will only admit when she’s nervous, anxious or scared if you press her—and sometimes not even then.
Well, one of those rare occasions took place a few days ago as we were enjoying our final day of an abbreviated vacation in Myrtle Beach. It was shortly after 10 a.m. and we were entering the first turn at Broadway on the Beach when Shannan was having difficulty keeping up. She then complained about stomach pains but didn’t have to go to the bathroom.
After some careful questioning, my wife and I recognized that the issue wasn’t a medical one, but agreed to end our vacation a few hours early and drive home. Shannan’s stomach pains had eased by the time we stopped for lunch, and were mostly a distant memory when we attended that evening’s school open house, when both my girls had the first opportunities to meet their teachers.
The final weekend before school went as good as one could hope with beautiful weather, a pair of soccer wins and no phantom stomach pains. A quick visit late Sunday afternoon from some wonderful northern friends, Glenn and Debbie Waller and their twin girls, Hannah and Mallory, produced plenty of much-needed laughs and stress-reducing giggles.
The giggles continued as we were tucking our girls into bed, trying in vain to enforce a 9 p.m. bedtime. Getting them to calm down and rest was no easy task, though I was secretly thrilled to see that Shannan had somehow magically transformed her debilitating anxiousness into excitement for what was yet to come.
It’s been a month since we’ve completed our move south and things are feeling “normal” again, and that has much to do with the start of soccer season.
As any travel soccer parent understands all too well, the season is that magical time of year when there’s hardly ever time to sit down together as a family. Instead, you’re picking up child No. 1, dragging her across town during rush hour so she can practice with her teammates, all the while trying to figure out how to entertain for the next 90 minutes child No. 2, whose team doesn’t practice until the next day—at a different time and, of course, on a different field.
Then there’s the stress of finding time to finish homework, study for tomorrow’s math test, eat dinner, take showers and, if there’s time, sleep.
That hectic schedule is why we’ve decided to take things slower this fall, enrolling our oldest, Shannan, in the league that’s run by the Town of Harrisburg instead of signing her up again for “club ball,” known back home as “travel soccer.” The stakes are much higher with club ball as it comes with intense practices run by paid trainers, mandatory participation in tournaments typically held over holiday weekends, and extensive travel for road games that could start as early as 9 a.m. or as late as 4:30 p.m.
We made the right decision. Though unpaid, Coaches Brian and Donny are excellent tutors; They’ve played the game, know the rules and enjoy teaching Shannan and her new teammates. Coach Michael, who has the difficult job of coaching a co-ed team of sometimes rambunctious 5- and 6-year-olds, is always calm and patient, even when the heat index hovers in the upper 90s and Fionna, our youngest, looks like she’s ready to melt.
While learning the game is still a top priority, it is placed on the same level as “having fun” with intramurals—and that’s the main difference between it and club ball. For example, my girls had an actual say for the first time in the naming of their respective teams, a decision that, in the past, was made by adults. (For the record, I understand why this responsibility was handled by adults for travel teams back home. Nine-year-old girls who want to be called the “Purple Unicorns” now might not dig the name when they’re juniors in high school.)
Still, it’s pretty darn cool to be able to pick a name, and not fret about whether or not it’s still “appropriate” when they’re teenagers. Team names are picked every year on intramurals, meaning there are no long-term repercussions.
With Fionna’s team, we didn’t realize they had even picked a name until they completed a cheer at the conclusion of their most recent practice. On the count of three, Coach Michael and his team—seven boys and three girls—shouted “Who are we?” and the kids yelled, “The Lava Melons!”
Fionna won that practice’s game of “Animals,” when the kids pick an animal they want to emulate in terms of speed—I’ve never seen so many cheetahs in my life outside an African plain—and try to dodge soccer balls kicked by the coach. Fionna earned the right to go first though, clearly, the boys had a say in the slight modification of her “Watermelons” suggestion.
Shannan’s coaches did things slightly different. They asked parents to solicit two suggested names from their daughters and then text the offerings to them during the week. The girls would then vote on the submissions at the next practice.
That happened on Friday evening and while Shannan’s first suggestion, “Lightning,” was met with crickets, her second choice, “The Kickin’ Chickens,” was greeted with cheers and laughs, from both her teammates and parents. One mom even applauded, adding that she’s looking forward to leading parents in performing “The Chicken Dance” on the sidelines during games.
The inspiration for Shannan’s suggestion? Her favorite meal offered at Zaxby’s, a restaurant chain specializing in wings, that includes three chicken tenders smothered in hot sauce and served between two pieces of Texas toast.
One cannot help but smile upon hearing Coach Donny yelling, “Who are we?” toward the end of Shannan’s most recent practice, and overhearing 10 girls yell in unison, “The Kickin’ Chickens!”
Even though she turned 6 on Monday, and her “birthday buddy minus one,” Joann, celebrated her 50th the day prior, the headline this week on Thistle Down Drive has been the changing status of Miss Fionna’s first loose baby tooth.
As per my youngest’s daily updates, the tooth in question had been “wiggly” for weeks, and the near-constant coaxing with her index finger and tongue did little to accelerate the loosening process. That changed on her birthday as she was playing at Joann’s family business, Top Notch Gymnastics in Concord, and learned the hard way about the importance of using “strong arms” to finish a proper tumble.
Her bottom left front tooth went from slightly wiggly to full-on loose, and we all knew that a visit from the Tooth Fairy would be occurring in short order.
Still, her tooth held on for another day before finally dislodging itself early Tuesday afternoon, and a smiling Miss Fionna then began showing it off for all to see, completely unconcerned about the new jack-o’-lantern grill she’d be sporting for the next few weeks.
Her next immediate concern was being home, and in bed asleep, so the Tooth Fairy would be able to deliver her cashola. “I’m getting a dollar,” she announced after I convinced her to put her tooth in a plastic baggie for safe keeping.
But her level of concern wasn’t clear until we were out to dinner that night with Joann and her family to celebrate the birthday girls. After enjoying a meal of chile con queso, street tacos, naked and stuffed burritos, and sizzling fajitas, I suggested that we hit the nearby Sonic for half-priced milkshakes (as it was after 8 p.m.).
Fi declined, and not even the coaxing of several members of the Christie clan, including her almost birthday buddy, could sway her.
Instead, we went home, placed the baggy with her tooth under her pillow, and Fi eventually drifted off to sleep. She was up before 6:30 this morning, eager to show off her spoils: five crisp $1 bills.
When I asked what she intended to do with her money, perhaps even suggesting that she could use it to buy ice cream for all of us, Fi wrinkled her nose and shared that she had already stuffed the bills into her piggy bank.
“That came from the Tooth Fairy—I can’t just give it away,” she concluded.
After some contemplation, she said we could still get some ice cream today, so long as Daddy did the buying.
The headline is a tad misleading as I do not know all that much about my good friend’s late father, other than what has been passed on by his children and what I gleaned on my own from the two times I was warmly welcomed into the beautiful Kentucky home that he shared with his loving wife, Charlotte.
For example, while I knew he was a World War II veteran, I only learned at Sunday’s wake in Louisville that Louis A. Bahr Jr.’s typing skills most likely saved his life. As per his oldest son Jim Bahr, his father was being trained on how to plant and detonate explosives to remove obstacles that could hinder the advancement of the Allied armored forces—a high-risk job that required great delicacy—until his Navy commanders needed a typist with agile hands.
Mr. Bahr was the only one in his unit who could type.
“The survival rate for those guys wasn’t too high,” Jim said while sharing the story, one of many told and retold that day, about his father’s combat training. “I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that.”
Additionally, I learned from one of his daughters, Peggy Foley, that Louis A. Bahr Jr. had been engaged before he met her mother, and that his fiancée broke things off by sending him a “Dear John” letter.
I also learned that Mr. Bahr, a lifelong Jack Daniels drinker, had finally switched to Maker’s Mark—a conversion that he had adamantly fought for years and was the trigger for many heated debates between him and his younger son and my close friend, Bob Bahr, an avid fan of Maker’s.
Ironically, the senior Mr. Bahr had switched loyalties again in his later years, this time to the much-higher proof Noah’s Mill though, as Bob notes, “He could only drink a thimble’s worth at a time,” pointing out that its proof typically exceeds 120. And Jim offered in a separate exchange that his father recently questioned why a waiter had served him a “sissy drink,” a glass of 90-proof Maker’s on the rocks, when he wanted straight bourbon.
It is also what will forever link Louis A. Bahr Jr. and myself as he is the one who introduced me to Elmer T. Lee, a bottle of which he enthusiastically served at the backyard celebration following Bob’s marriage to the lovely Lynne almost 10 years earlier.
And by “enthusiastically” I mean he didn’t give me the chance to say no even though Bob’s prior attempts to covert me from gin had been unsuccessful during my first visit to Kentucky in 2000 for Derby.
Next thing I knew, I was holding a wine glass containing a few cubes of ice and four fingers worth of Elmer. We toasted the newlyweds and thus began my love affair/obsession with all things bourbon.
As proven by Mr. Bahr’s double conversion, tastes and palates are always in flux, which is why having an open mind is essential to enjoying all that life has to offer and, in certain circumstances, offer again many years later.
The one great known about Louis A. Bahr Jr. was his stubbornness, a characteristic that I learned this weekend he was well-aware of possessing though, as per Bob, his father preferred to describe the quality as “tenaciousness.”
Well played, Louis A. Bahr Jr. Well played.
In addition to raising a glass of Elmer to mark the passing of yet another member of our Greatest Generation, I feel I must share one of my earliest columns, “Tales Of Gold,” that was inspired by the late Mr. Bahr and his … tenaciousness.
Rest in peace, Mr. Bahr.
“Tales Of Gold”
By Frank S. Costanza
To be honest, I never thought much about squirrels before visiting Louisville with a good friend, who also happens to be a native of this great southern city, to watch the Kentucky Derby a few years back. But all of my unfounded beliefs that squirrels were nothing more than simple-minded, bushy-tailed nut collectors immediately changed following one of my first conversations with my friend’s parents, Lou and Charlotte.
Apparently, Lou has been entrenched in a bitter war against these descendants of the rodent family, which includes your typical fox and gray varieties, as well as the fancier “southern flying squirrel,” for many years.
And, no, “war” is not too dramatic a term to describe the man vs. rodent battle that has been and continues to be waged on the battlefield otherwise known as Lou’s backyard.
Let me explain.
Unlike most of today’s conflicts, whose origins have been blurred by years of finger-pointing, political scheming and calculated deflection by governments, Lou’s war against the indigenous squirrel population started over a simple birdfeeder. Instead of attracting cardinals, finches and chickadees, as was originally intended, the backyard feeder was systematically emptied by not just one but a large family of acrobatic squirrels.
Ticked that rodents were raiding his feed, Lou did the next logical thing to protect his investment: he coated the 6-foot-tall pole holding up the birdfeeder with a thick layer of Vaseline.
Imagine the joy Lou must have felt as he watched squirrel after squirrel attempt to climb the slick pole, only to slowly slide down again and again, their paws helplessly trying to grip the glazed metal rod.
Now imagine his surprise as he watched one particular squirrel, perhaps the ringleader of this marauding group of rodents, climb to the top of his second-story house, jump to the roof of his shed and end his act with a victory leap to the birdfeeder—all in front of Lou’s disbelieving eyes.
“They were like monkeys,” said Bob, Lou’s son. “They were really determined to get that feed.”
Military analysts will tell you that the key to winning a war, and not just a battle, is learning how to quickly counter your enemy’s moves. Lou was no different; he immediately purchased a couple of humane traps that he used to lure and capture the trespassing squirrels.
But relocation was not a good enough option to guarantee that the ostracized rodents wouldn’t eventually find their way back to Lou’s home to wreak havoc. Lou needed security, especially since his Vaseline plan had failed so miserably.
Once again, he did what any normal northerner would do: he bought cans of gold spray paint to mark the tails of the squirrels he had captured.
According to the notebook kept in his garage, Lou has successfully captured and relocated more than 700 of these violating squirrels, all of which made the mistake of being drawn either to the birdfeeder or Charlotte’s small backyard garden. Lou says that he has helped his enemies find religion or a hot meal, as he usually transports the caged squirrels in the trunk of his car before releasing them in the parking lots of local churches and restaurants.
I was reminded of Lou’s obsession while waiting for my girlfriend to get into my pickup truck one recent weekend. I couldn’t help but notice the distinctive “ping!” of acorns steadily striking my roof of my vehicle. One of my girlfriend’s baby sisters was standing on her front lawn, her eyes fixed on the tops of two 60-foot oak trees.
“What are you doing, Briana?” I asked, never thinking that a squirrel could be deliberately tossing discarded acorns at the annoying humans below.
“Nothing,” she replied. “It’s the squirrels.”
My girlfriend, who had just hopped into the passenger seat, must have sensed my disbelief, as she quickly added, “They do that. They usually try to hit you [with acorns] when you’re walking.”
I never questioned Briana again. But I couldn’t help but wonder if Lou’s “gold-tail” squirrels had successfully migrated north. I mean, what other clan of squirrels could be mad enough to throw acorns at small children and parked cars?
The tails of these two squirrels were a mix of brown and gray.
And I’ll confess, I was a bit relieved.
*Originally published in the 11/13/03 edition of The Southampton Press
My wife makes a list whenever things get complicated, and it is one of the reasons why she’s a productive person, one who can juggle difficult tasks with ease and bring balance to our chaotic lives. On the flip side, I keep running lists inside my thick cranium, allowing them to fester, modify and multiply, rather than rely on what will inevitably devolve into a yellow, orange and pink tsunami of mostly illegible sticky notes affixed to countertops and monitors.
We both seek structure but go about it in completely different ways—yet it works for us as a married couple with two young daughters, Shannan and Fionna. Case in point: Our respective “pros and cons” lists when deciding if we should uproot our family and move from Long Island to North Carolina matched up nearly identically.
Pros—lower cost of living, less congestion, lower taxes, less traffic, polite people, longer summers, almost no snow days, new opportunities and adventures, and lots and lots of cows, barbecue, fried chicken and craft beers (I think you can see where our respective lists melded).
Cons—leaving behind our extended families, moving inland after living the entirety of our lives within 10 minutes of the ocean, packing and moving all of our crap 670 miles, and familiarizing ourselves with redneck terminology, like “That dog won’t hunt!” (Bad idea, friend), and “Quit piddling around!” (Stop wasting time, Yankee).
As you might be able to ascertain by now, the “pros” ultimately won out and we were recently reunited as a family in our new hometown of Harrisburg. Things are still relatively new for the four of us, and that’s why I thought now would be the best time to compare what we’ve given up with what now lies before us in the south.
And, you know, mercilessly pass judgment on both.
So, without further ado (and in no particular order):
Beaches vs. “The Beach”
Next to leaving our families, moving away from the ocean was the most difficult part of our relocation south and, notably, inland. Living on an island spoils you in many ways, like always having the ability to jump in a car and, within minutes, being able to sink one’s bare feet into the sand or cast a line into the water at Ponquogue Beach in Hampton Bays. Visiting the beach is therapy for many Long Islanders, even those who prefer that their lobster be unshelled for them and served with a side of hot butter.
Unless you’re lost, or searching for a specific spit of sand, the beach is always a welcoming destination—and now it isn’t for us. And that’s still hard to comprehend.
That’s not to say that North Carolina is a “dry state.” There’s beautiful Lake Norman, the Tarheel State’s manmade “inland sea.” It’s enormous, spanning more than 50 square miles, located less than 20 miles outside Charlotte, and offers an assortment of recreational activities, from fishing, sailing and waterskiing to hiking, camping and golfing.
But those who want a true ocean beach experience must go to “The Beach,” what the locals call Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In less than four hours, we can be there, enjoying fresh seafood, sniffing the ocean air and navigating Broadway at the Beach.
Though a tad more “tacky and touristy” than what we’re used to, Myrtle Beach—especially the northern end—is a solid substitute for when us northerners want to sink an umbrella in the sand, jump waves or feel the spray of saltwater on our faces.
While it has much to offer, especially for our younger set, Myrtle Beach will never be able to completely fill this particular void.
Advantage: Beaches (as in Long Island’s many beaches)
The Big Apple vs. The Queen City
Yes, Manhattan is the city that never sleeps. It is home to the Great White Way. It is one of the world’s four fashion capitals. It is also home to some of the most exquisite restaurants on the planet, and the place to be if you have a 2 a.m. craving for kebabs, souvlaki, or baklava.
But there are plenty of drawbacks as well, starting with the astronomical costs of everything from rent to Yankees game tickets. There’s traffic all the time, whether it’s 5 p.m. on a Friday or 2 a.m. on a Tuesday. And if you spend more than 20 minutes on the subway in the summer, you’ll eventually be floored by stench of urine. (Fact.)
Though considerably younger and smaller, Charlotte is no slouch when it comes to entertainment (especially sports) and upscale restaurants. It also has a thriving downtown—which, ironically, is referred to as “Uptown”—with new companies making it their home base monthly. It is clean, welcoming and boasts a public transportation system that won’t make one constantly mutter curses under one’s breath (I’m talking to you, Long Island Rail Road)!
Named after Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the queen consort of King George III, the Queen City thrives and bustles without ever being pretentious (or stinky).
It’s also accessible, even as the North Carolina Department of Transportation continues upgrading the city’s ever-expanding highway system. Of course, there’s still traffic, notably during the morning and evening rushes, especially on Route 77, but it’s also quite common for it to only take 20-25 minutes to make one’s way from Uptown to Harrisburg—a trip that should only take 20-25 minutes or so.
Advantage: The Queen City
New York Jets vs. Carolina Panthers
No explanation required from this lifelong, and miserable, Jets fan.
But seriously, Charlotte is a city that caters to sports lovers, and not just football and NASCAR addicts (The NASCAR Hall of Fame is here).
It is home to a pair of professional, and successful, sports franchises in the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Hornets, whose home stadiums are within walking distance to one another Uptown. The Queen City also boasts a pair of equally competitive minor league teams. The Charlotte Knights, the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, also play downtown and their home field, BB&T Park, is both immaculate and glorious. Meanwhile, the Charlotte Checkers, the AHL affiliate of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, play their home games just outside the city, at Bojangles’ Coliseum, which looks like a baked good from a distance and is fittingly referred to as “The Biscuit.”
And don’t get me started on ticket prices. I treated my buddy and his daughter, as well as my oldest, to a Checkers game last season and it cost less than a single ticket to a New York Rangers game, and that included concessions for my daughter and myself.
The only downside for this Yankee (who will remain an uprooted and displaced Mets fan) is that the Atlanta Braves are the most “local” of MLB franchises.
What’s one blemish on an otherwise impeccable record?
Advantage: Carolina Panthers (And Company)
Uncle G’s vs. Lowes
(Not What You’re Thinking)
As a full-blooded Sicilian, the south’s lack of quality Italian foods is, in a word, discerning, alarming, traumatizing and freaking me the heck out. In addition to once having several true Italian delis within driving distance—such as Delfiore’s in Patchogue, Scotto’s in Hampton Bays and Nino’s in our old hometown of Smithtown—we also left behind our most lovable of uncles, Uncles Giuseppe’s.
For those who have never been, it’s an Italian pork store on steroids, a market offering a full line of homemade sauces and pastas, specialty cheeses, salted meats like prosciutto and soppressata, and an assortment of mouth-watering breads that are baked in Brooklyn and trucked in every morning by a guy named Tony.
The trade-off is roughly one-quarter of the local Lowes Foods—a supermarket chain founded by the former co-owner of the home improvement store that shares the same name—features the widest variety of locally crafted beers that this Yankee has ever seen under one roof outside of a distributor’s warehouse.
Our Lowes also features a tap room with a small bar, allowing shoppers to sample the goods while completing their shopping. Needless to say, going grocery shopping isn’t the same arduous task as it is back north, and there are plenty of less interesting (and less tasty) ways to spend a Friday evening.
The only downside—and it’s a fairly huge one—is that all of Lowes Foods’ salted Italian meats are of the pre-packaged variety, and being able to get a buzz while shopping for brisket and baby back ribs isn’t enough to fill this particular hole.
Advantage: Uncle G’s, Delfiore’s, Scotto’s and Nino’s
Smith Haven Mall vs. Concord Mills
It comes as little surprise that both are now owned by shopping mall operator goliath Simon Property Group, though the latter is by far the much cooler, newer and more attractive option.
Concord Mills—it’s so popular that the word “mall” is unnecessary—opened in 1999 and boasts more than 200 shops and restaurants, including a whopping 15 anchor stores (Smith Haven has like three.) Perhaps most impressive is that its nearly 1.4 million square feet of retail space is configured in an enormous oval, mirroring the track of the nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It only takes one visit to understand why Concord Mills is North Carolina’s top tourist attraction with roughly 17 million visitors annually. In contrast, the Smith Haven Mall—named as such as it spans two towns, Smithtown and Brookhaven, and measuring roughly the same size—only has 140 retail options and, most important, no LEGO store.
Advantage: Concord Mills
Riverhead Raceway vs. Charlotte Motor Speedway
One has a 1.5-mile oval track, seating for more than 89,000 racing fans and hosts several prestigious NASCAR events each year, like the Coca-Cola 600 over Memorial Day weekend. It also anchors a 2,000-acre racing compound/mecca that features the ZMAX Dragway—the only all-concrete, four-lane drag strip in the country—which sits alongside the Dirt Track of Charlotte, a four-tenths-mile clay oval that seats 14,000 and annually hosts Monster Truck championships.
The other is the Riverhead Raceway.
Advantage: Charlotte Motor Speedway
7-Eleven vs. QuikTrip
When pitching our then-potential relocation to our children, my wife and I purposely pointed out that we’d be considerably closer to the Magic Kingdom—it’s less than a 9-hour drive, to be exact.
The second greatest selling point: the abundance of QuikTrip franchises in the greater Charlotte area.
For those who haven’t been, a visit to QuikTrip is magical in its own right. In addition to averaging 20 gas pumps, individual shops offer a salivating selection of freshly made foods, like personal pizzas, flatbreads and hand-braided pretzels that come with your choice of dipping sauce (cheese, marina or icing), as well as a wide assortment of fresh and flavored coffees AND hot teas, regardless of the time of day.
But the clincher for our kiddies was the FREEZONI, otherwise known as the “Wall of Slushie Goodness.” Unlike the 7-Elevens back home that offer three or four different flavors at most, and frequently fewer, all QuikTrips—or “The QT” as they’re known locally—are always stocked with around a dozen different flavors. In addition to traditional flavors, like Coca-Cola and Blue Raspberry, QT’s tease tongues with tantalizing numbers like Orange Cream, Mountain Berry Blast, Strawberry Banana, Cherry Limeade, and so on and so on.
That doesn’t include their assortment of Smoothies, the icy versions of Cheerwine, Sun Drop, Raspberry Lemonade and so on. And there’s also an equally impressive selection of fountain drinks, all reasonably priced.
Advantage: The QT
Jones Beach vs. PNC Pavilion
The Jones Beach Theater—I refuse to call it by its new corporate name—is pure Long Island. The 15,000-seat amphitheater overlooks beautiful Zachs Bay on the barrier island and is a stone’s throw from the Atlantic. As the only local outdoor music venue capable of attracting mainstream musicians and bands, it IS the place to be to catch a summer concert.
What it lacks in waterfront views, the PNC Music Pavilion makes up for in practicality. Even though it sits in University City, just north of Charlotte proper, and can hold up to 19,500 concert-goers, PNC Pavilion is still easily accessible and draws many different performers and bands. Its expansive lawn is welcoming and a great place to catch some sun and tunes.
The slight advantage goes to Jones Beach, however, mostly because of the waterfront views.
A week after torturing my daughters by dragging them to the first of two required trips to the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles, a visit that ate up nearly four hours and that was just to procure my new driver’s license, I was forced to break the bad news to them again last night.
We’d be returning first thing in the morning though, this time, it would be to get my new North Carolina “First in Flight” license plate.
Unlike New York’s Department of Motor Vehicles, North Carolina’s version inexplicably separates two related and necessary services. And by “separate,” I mean purposely scatters their locations in different parts of the county. For example, the licensing and identification division we visited was in Concord, about a 25-minute drive north and west of here, while the nearest title transfer and registration renewal office is, fortunately for us, in our new hood of Harrisburg.
So, in addition to traveling to two different offices, those who move here from out of state must stand in two separate lines just to complete the registration process.
Heeding the advice of friends to avoid the local renewal office on Mondays and Fridays, we headed over this morning and, much to our delighted surprise, there were only two people ahead of us in line. Even Miss Fionna, who turns 6 on Monday, could not quite comprehend what was happening.
“Where are all the people, daddy?” she asked, to which I responded that she is never to ask such questions until the DMV office is in our rear-view mirror.
Last week, we were forced to stand in line in the foyer for 45 minutes before we could enter the main waiting room due to fire code seating capacity limits.
My surprise didn’t end there. The semi-pleasant woman handling my title transfer—and, for the record, I’ll take “semi-pleasant” six days a week and again on Sunday whenever I’m dealing with a government entity—had ZERO issues processing my application. Aside from paying a higher-than-normal fee, due to a one-time processing cost and the fact that drivers pay property taxes on their vehicles down here (that’s another story), we were in and out in under 30 minutes.
It wasn’t until I was sitting in my Honda CRV again that I thought to check out my new license plate, which had been previously stuffed into an envelope before being unceremoniously handed over to me. After realizing I wasn’t seeing double, I could not help but laugh.
I no longer have a legitimate excuse for forgetting my plate number, that’s for certain.
Now I just need to figure out what kind of vanity plate should adorn the front of my ride. There are too many possibilities! Any suggestions, friends?
Though I still have a lot to learn about North Carolina, such as the best way to access “The Loop”—the nearly 70-mile-long highway that completely encircles the city of Charlotte—I already know one thing for certain.
When it rains here, it rains hard.
There’s been the risk of thunderstorms each of the past four days and, each time, once beautiful and sunny skies have given way to fast-moving and treacherous-looking gray clouds. In each instance, the rumbling of thunder could be heard off in the distance, quickly followed by the slow “pit-pat-pit-pat” of oversized raindrops striking our roof, window panes and the concrete patio out back.
Within minutes, the slow “pit-pat-pit-pat” is replaced with the rapid machine-gun fire of pelting raindrops striking every hard and unforgiving surface, including the area’s hard clay soil that can never fully absorb it all, prompting the immediate forming of large puddles that cover lawns and streets—at least until the sun reappears and quickly dries it all up.
Before that happens, the rain typically increases in intensity as the rumbling thunder is joined by strikes of lightning that somehow still manage to illuminate a still-bright early afternoon sky. After a parting boom or two, the strength of which usually rattles the windows, the rain resumes its slow “pit-pat-pit-pat” chorus before stopping … at least for the moment.
A final rumble of thunder, which I’ve interpreted as a promise of a return visit, usually concludes each day’s downpour.