This past week, the Fox Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia headed north — not stopping in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but looting and pillaging all the way into New Jersey and the southern portions of New York. Food vendors all along the Delaware and New Jersey Turnpikes were terrorizied by small boys running rampant (after having been cooped up in a station wagon for hours). Yankee children in various parks and playgrounds were accosted by their rambunctious Southern cousins, and motel beds groaned under the weight of boys joyfully using them as trampolenes while watching normally forbidden Adult Swim episodes on Cartoon Network.
This was our first Official Family Vacation since moving to Manassas two years ago. Having lived on Long Island from 1987 to 1990, I have many good friends there, and since then I’ve gained new business associates in New York City and had some of my New Orleans friends relocate there following Hurricane Katrina. It was time to renew all those connections, and I was eager to share my family with my friends and share New York, both the City and Long Island, with my boys.
We stayed in an America’s Best Value Inn in Smithtown on Long Island, so the boys got to eat donuts for breakfast four mornings in a row. No complaints there, at least not from the boys! Wednesday night we stopped in Northport before heading to our motel. We met Charlie and Ann Marie Pellegrino and their two sons, Christian and Joseph, for dinner at the Venus Greek Restaurant on Fort Salonga Road (yes, I know Venus was a Roman goddess, not a Greek goddess; but if they’d called it the Aphrodite Greek Restaurant, they would’ve had to have spent a lot more money on the sign). I used to eat all the time at the Venus back when I was a young bachelor and it was located about a half mile west. Used to walk through foot-deep snow to get there, mainly for the egg lemon soup (and the pretty young Greek waitresses). They still serve excellent vegetarian grape leaves and egg lemon soup. I first met Charlie at the Northport Public Library, where we both attended a lecture on Sylvia Plath’s poetry (and were the only two males in attendance, as well as the only two attendees under the age of 70). He then introduced me to the rest of my Northport friends, and later went on to star as the washed-up Mexican wrestler-superhero El Frenetico in a trio of “El Frenetico and Go-Girl” short movies — which are a hoot! (And which are available on Amazon, but only in VHS, and currently only at collectors’ prices, unfortunately.)
On Thursday, following a minor mishap with Dara’s cell phone’s GPS (which led us to Port Jefferson, rather than to the Smithtown railroad station), the family took the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan to have lunch with Peter Rubie of the Fine Print Literary Agency (my relatively new agent, and the man whose efforts you should all cheer on if you ever want to see any more of my books reach print), my old high school buddy Maury Feinsilber (who has recently been lighting up publications like The Missouri Review with his short fiction), and Maggie Zellner, Dara’s best friend from NOCA, the New Orleans Creative Arts high school, whom she hadn’t seen in twenty-six years. The boys behaved themselves surprisingly well, allowing us adults to catch up and even talk a little business. Peter was an absolute prince; he couldn’t have been more warm to the family. Best line of the afternoon, via Dara: “Maggie, I went from picking up boys in Georgetown to picking up after boys in Manassas!”
After letting the trio of youngsters burn off some of their steam in a pair of Manhattan playgrounds, I took them to the 86th floor observatory of the Empire State Building (expensive, but worth it if you only get into Manhattan once every decade or so). My own dad took me there when I was five; I’m sure it was a lot less expensive then (but they didn’t have nearly as many King Kong tchotches on sale back in 1970). What helped make it worth the price of admission was a guy in a gargantuan King Kong outfit who posed for photos with the kids. My youngest, Judah, got too scared at the last minute and clung to my leg while his brothers embraced the big ape. Then we went outside to oogle the Chrysler Building, the U.N. Building, and the Hudson and East Rivers.
On Friday we picked Maury up at the Huntington train station and ate lunch at the Shipwreck Diner in Northport, then headed over to the beach at Sunken Meadow State Park (which had just reopened the day before, after having been closed down by Hurricane Irene). I’ve been spoiled by the fine, sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast and South Florida, so the rocky shoreline of Long Island Sound caused a bit of “ook”-ing and “ouch!”-ing (didn’t bring flip-flops with me), but the bluffs ringing the beach are gorgeous, and we all loved the various types of gulls that flocked to Dara’s offerings of leftover french fries and stale cookies. It was great to get to hang out with Maury. I just wish we could do it more often. You never run out of things to talk about with someone who was your best friend in high school.
Friday night we headed west to Garden City, to have dinner with Marty and Laura Joh Rowland. We knew Marty and Laura from New Orleans, where Laura had been a founding member of George Alec Effinger’s monthly writing critique group that I learned so much from between 1994 and 2009. Marty and Laura relocated to Queens a few years after rebuilding their home in Old Gentilly in New Orleans, flooded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Laura has continued writing her mystery series set in seventeenth century Japan which began with Shinju and Bundori; her latest is The Ronin’s Mistress, due out on September 13, just a few days from now. Levi, my little future engineer, spent most of dinner talking about building bridges and neighborhoods with Marty, who works as an environmental engineer with the City of New York; we had to do a bit of hydrological engineering when Levi accidentally spilled a glass of water all over himself. Not the worst of all possible disasters, but the restaurant was perhaps a bit too “posh” for my boys (Denny’s is generally about as upscale as Dara and I dare go). I’m really happy to see Laura and Marty thriving in New York.
Saturday we went beachcombing on Centerport’s town beach, where the kids collected smelly clam shells, oyster shells, and various body parts of deceased horseshoe crabs. Judah found a crab tail, which he immediately pronounced was his “claw,” and he told his brothers he was now Wolverine. Then we got together with the multitalented Jon Sanborne, poet, plant tender, singer in punk rock band Satan’s Cheerleaders, outlandish villain in various El Frenetico movies, and alumnus of the Smoke Stack group of writers, which briefly thrived on Long Island in 1990. Jon was kind enough to repair Judah’s crab tail with a strip of Scotch tape after my son cracked it in half (and was immediately inconsolable about the loss).
After hooking up with Jon, we all headed for the Pellegrinos’ house for a pool party and barbeque. Charlie and Ann Marie were gracious hosts, and many of the guests they invited also brought little boys of various shapes and sizes, so mine had plenty of playmates. Dara and I basked in an unusual atmosphere of relaxation; we both realized this was the first party we’d ever attended where we’d felt secure just letting the boys go off by themselves and play with their peers. The Pellegrinos’ basement and dens were already brimming with toys and games and clutter; most of the things that could be broken had already been broken long ago by the Pellegrino boys themselves, so my sons had few opportunities to add more destruction or mess. So Dara and I were free to enjoy our friends. And so many friends! Charlie rounded up virtually the whole gang from my last year in Northport — Chris Limbach, another alumnus of the Smoke Stack group, and his two young sons (one of which was very natty in a Sinatra-like hat); Jon; Jim and Deb Robertson; and photographer Cliff Gardiner and his wife Marie and their son. The passage of time could not be better illustrated by the fact that the bunch of us, all lonely and moderately miserable bachelors back in 1990, were now, for the most part, married and carting around little crews of between one and three young boys apiece. We stayed as long as we could, considering we had to get the kids to bed so we could wake up early the next morning and get back on the road. Would we could have stayed longer.
Sunday morning we said “so long” to our temporary home in Smithtown, after having made friends with an insurance adjuster up from Tennessee, in New York to assist with recovery from Hurricane Irene. Then we headed off to Teaneck, New Jersey and the home of Barry and Joyce Malzberg. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Barry twice before, once at a SF convention in Dallas and once at the Newark Airport, but this was my first time meeting Joyce. As my pal Maury would say, “What a doll!” She treated my boys like they were her own grandsons and made us all feel extremely welcome in her home. We all walked the boys over to a neighborhood playground, then walked another few blocks to a pizza parlor for lunch. Barry and I swapped stories of Noreascon II, the 1980 World Science Fiction Convention in Boston, which we both attended (although we didn’t bump into each other during the con). Back then, Barry was working on the essays which would come to make up his classic collection, The Engines of the Night: Science Fiction in the Eighties, and I was a fifteen year-old fanboy, carrying around a stack of fanzines to sell (gave them all away), and a box of corn flakes and a tin of raisins so I wouldn’t have to spend any of my money on food but could spend it all on books in the dealers’ room. All too often, we lack an opportunity to tell our heroes how much they mean to us, or we let those opportunities slip past. I made sure not to let this opportunity get away. And Joyce, if you would like to be Levi’s, Asher’s, and Judah’s honorary grandma, the job is yours!
All in all, a wonderful trip (despite the fighting and the tumult in the car during the long drive home; the boys arrived back in Manassas duly chastised). Friendships can wither if they aren’t occasionally watered. I’m very happy we took time to sprinkle some water around New York and New Jersey.