The top ten things I learned from loving Lucy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved Lucy.

I didn’t follow sports, but rooted for Lucy like my life depended on it.

On more than one occasion I came to near physical blows with my older brother to gain control of the TV to watch “my” show. 

Brother Steve was a Star Trek devotee who found fascination with Captain Kirk and Spock (among others on the Starship Enterprise) interacting with bizarre-looking outer space creatures whereas I simply preferred the very earthly Ricardos and the Mertzes. 

I could not get enough of watching this kooky housewife and her unflappable friend plan and hatch Lucy’s half-baked schemes. The resulting insanity always gave way to some important takeaway that I diligently filed away knowing someday it would come to good use.

After all, I never knew when I might have to wrestle a hefty Italian woman in a vat of grapes or land a television commercial gig lauding the benefits of a new health serum, and wanted to be prepared for such things.

Obvious (bad) humor aside, I believe I acquired some fairly helpful life skills while logging all those hours with Lucy.

For example, from who else could I possibly learn how to convince my friends to trust and follow me into my mission of the day, and then how to cleverly negotiate my way out should those best laid plans be upended by some unexpected hitch?

These were not things you could expect to learn from your parents or teachers, or even your coolest friend or relative.

When some of my more serious-minded friends learn of my devotion to “I Love Lucy” they roll their eyes in disbelief. Most are unable to recognize that there is actual wisdom to be gained from following the escapades of a bored and stage-crazy 1950’s housewife running amok.

Don't think so?

I do.

So here are my ten take-aways from I Love Lucy:  

1. Headstrong, with a touch of wacky, and if necessary, unconventional, has a 95% success rate.

2. For the 5% of failures, it’s okay to cry and admit you’ve made a mistake.

3. I have no problem following my husband’s lead, provided he's headed in the same direction I am.

4. I rely on forgiveness of minor transgressions when they are motivated by unselfish or good intentions.

5. When said transgressions are unforgivable with a simple explanation, plan B is launched to make the aggravated either so confused or amused they forget why they were mad.

6. I am wary of going into business and/or traveling with friends, particularly if those friends are the Mertzes.

7. I have learned there is a way to justify just about any impulse purchase to the point of it being nearly medically necessary.

8. I have learned to accept my deficiencies on the dance floor but nonetheless unabashedly move as if I belong on Broadway.

9. I stay in my lane. You won’t ever see me trying to get into my husband’s writing “act.” No sir-ee not a written peep out of me.

10. I have learned that no matter what chaos I may inadvertently create from being overly adventurous (one of my most commonly used phrases is "how hard can it be?), it can quickly be remedied by an unfailing sense of humor and humility. 

Laughter is, after all, the best medicine.

 


Following Larry's Lead

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This week Huntington lost a devoted son, 51 year old Lawrence (Larry) Kushnick.

Larry’s untimely death was a horribly bitter pill to swallow. After learning the sad news I pondered the idea of our Town and a life without Larry in it, and simply could not process or accept it. How could Larry be gone? Among many things, he was a powerful life force, an intellect, a successful lawyer and businessman, a traveling sideshow comedy act, and, a generous spirit who endlessly and joyfully gave, expecting nothing in return. And he did it all with such ease, like it was nothing. And just like that, Larry was gone.

Life could not have sent us a more powerful or cruel reminder of its fragility.

Larry had a superb sense of humor and loved to make people laugh, which may have been one of his most endearing qualities. I first met Larry nearly twenty years ago while working on a campaign to help preserve Huntington’s OHEKA Castle. Larry loved Huntington, his hometown, and made it his business to advocate for the best of anything our Town had to offer. So, it was no surprise that Larry appeared on the scene to do his part to save a priceless architectural and historic Long Island Gold Coast mansion.

It was in the trenches of the OHEKA campaign that I first got to know and appreciate Larry. So many years later, and with a heavy heart over his life cut short, I manage a half smile remembering Larry dressed as a rather homely bride at a 1996 OHEKA Halloween party, complete with intentionally misapplied red lipstick for a creepy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? effect. I believe that Larry would be pleased and proud to know that I, and probably a great many, still recall his grand, but clumsy, entrance into the Castle as Bridezilla all those years ago.

In more recent years, I had the pleasure of working alongside Larry in his leadership role at the Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce, attending many meetings with him and other business leaders to discuss important economic development issues and initiatives. A scant two weeks ago, Larry invited me to his May 21st breakfast inauguration as Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce Chairman. During his very inspiring Powerpoint presentation and installation, Larry repeatedly referred to the event as his “inauguration/bar mitzvah,” generating much laughter in the room. He was having a great time and we were all so very much looking forward to working with Larry to fulfill the many new goals and visions he outlined that morning in his inaugural address.

The days, weeks and months ahead will be difficult and painful as the Huntington Chamber and our Town work to regroup from this monumental loss. And, Huntington will surely never know another son quite like Larry Kushnick.

As we support each other in this time of sadness and loss, let us take some measure of solace in the knowledge that Larry was allowed to stay on with us just long enough to scratch out a roadmap offering clear directions of where he was looking to take us as Chairman of the Huntington Chamber. I know, if we only follow Larry’s lead, and go on to achieve the many goals and visions to which he aspired, we will honor his memory in the very best way possible. And, Huntington will be better for it.

We must now muster our energy and resolve to move forward to the many tasks ahead to complete this precious and unfinished life’s work. And in doing so, we must remember to find the joy and laughter along the way.

Larry would want it no other way.


Local artists' murals are more than just art

 

Each day hundreds pass his murals that grace the facades of numerous Huntington buildings. They are pleasing to the eye, providing life and history to otherwise empty walls and spaces. They pay tribute to war veterans, historic figures, and even an iconic Huntington businessman. But they do not tell the remarkable story of Huntington resident Erich Preis, the man behind the art.

For 39 year-old Erich Preis, art is salvation.  In addition to using his artistic talent and training to express his reverence for veterans and connection to God and nature, Erich uses art as therapy to overcome challenges with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Upon his diagnosis seven years ago, Erich felt like a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Since childhood, he struggled with an array of difficulties for which he was treated with medications. Despite the social and communication challenges he faced, in 1992 Erich successfully graduated from Harborfields High School. Following high school he earned an A.S. from Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Art and Design, and later, a B.A. in Art Therapy from Long Island University, CW Post Campus. He also attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on scholarship for two years, completed 12 credits at Queens College toward a Master’s, and earned certification by the State of New York to teach art.

Erich’s academic accomplishments are no small feat, especially for someone who suffers from an autism spectrum disorder that is estimated to occur at a rate of 2-6 per 1000 in the U.S. population. Yet, these achievements represent only a single dimension of Erich’s larger success story.

On 9-11 Erich’s life took a dramatic turn when he lost his friend and former FIT roommate, Michael A. Noeth, after American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked and crashed into the west side of the Pentagon. Noeth served as the Chief of Graphics at the Pentagon, and was among the 125 casualties within the federal building.

The tragic loss of Noeth, a fellow artist and mentor whom Erich credits as being the first person to push him to reach new heights with his art, deeply resonated on a personal and professional level. It was Erich’s intent from that day forward to pay tribute to Noeth through his art. He also vowed to honor our men and women in the armed forces, past and present, who serve our nation and protect our freedoms.

Erich did what came naturally to him and picked up his brush and began to paint. Springing forth were a series of works depicting the heroism and sacrifice of our American war veterans. For Preis, it was a therapeutic exercise. His ability to express himself through paintings and sculptures provided a measure of comfort he was otherwise unable to achieve in the face of incomprehensible tragedy. “Painting keeps me focused and calm,” he explained.

Erich later came to know and befriend the late Len Totora, a lifelong Huntington resident and owner of L&L Camera in Huntington. Len was a proud Korean War veteran known for his philanthropy and compassion for the homeless, especially homeless veterans. In honor of Len, Erich painted a mural depicting him at both his L&L Camera building at 267 New York Avenue, and later, on the building located at the corner of Route 25A and Park Avenue, both in Huntington.

Erich first met Len Totora when his late grandfather, Robert Bailey, a naval aviator and Pearl Harbor veteran, accompanied him to the L&L camera store. Erich was anxious to trade his camera for another and was nervous he wouldn’t be able to get the camera he wanted, so he recruited his grandfather to assist in the transaction.

“I remember my grandfather giving me a wink during the drive to the store. He told me to let him do all the talking,” Erich said. During small talk while browsing cameras, Erich’s grandfather noticed the photos of Len in uniform displayed throughout the store and mentioned that he was at Pearl Harbor. In immediate recognition of doing business with one of his “brothers,” Len gave Mr. Bailey the camera his grandson was eyeing, no questions asked. “It was great!” Erich beamed.

A mutual devotion to veterans forged a camaraderie between Erich and Len. They worked together to raise $8,000 through private donors to finance a memorial to honor Christopher Scherer, a U.S. Marine from East Northport who was killed in Iraq in July 2007. The bronze sculpture created by Erich was later donated to the late Reverend Gaines for his Huntington Station Helping Hands Rescue Mission “Garden of Memories.” Rev. Gaines, whose dream was to create a memorial garden for the mission, had himself served as a U.S. Marine. The Scherer memorial was unveiled on October 9, 2011, the same day Erich’s beloved grandfather, Robert Bailey, passed away.

After Totora’s death on February 22, 2010, Erich was invited to do a mural at the former Village Green automotive building at the corner of Route 25A and Park Avenue in Huntington. At that location, Erich painted yet another image of the iconic L&L Camera owner, together with President George Washington. He does not believe it was a coincidence that Len Totora passed away on Washington’s birthday. However, Erich was not prepared to learn yet another profound connection associated with his decision to include Washington in that mural.

“A Park Avenue neighbor approached me as I was working and asked if I realized that George Washington had once delivered a speech at that very location,” Erich said. “She then pointed to the plaque commemorating the occasion, which I had not realized was there, and all at once I felt every hair on the back of my neck stand up,” he said.

As he toiled to complete the extensive mural on the Village Green building, Erich came up with an idea to fulfill a longtime dream. In January 2011, Erich’s dream became reality with the launch of a not for profit organization to help both children and adults with special needs discover art as a form of therapy as he did. The Spirit of Huntington Art Center offers a series of art classes with various instructors and guest artists, as well as the opportunity to participate in local outdoor mural projects under the direction of Preis. More recently, the Center added yoga instruction with exercises for calming breathing techniques.

Erich views his Asperger’s diagnosis in adulthood as a blessing rather than a burden. “It opened my eyes to a whole new understanding and appreciation of me. I now knew what I was dealing with, and was therefore able to study, understand, explore and accept it,” he said. Erich identified the classic Asperger’s trigger points, and then devised ways to use art therapy and yoga, both of which require intense focus, to intercept certain stimuli to the frontal lobe of the brain that sets off a sense of chaos or confusion. The mastery of these therapies ultimately substituted for the medications Erich had been taking since childhood. “I’ve never felt better,” Erich said.

Erich’s most recent mural at the Dole Fuel Oil building at 100 New York Avenue in Huntington depicts athletes engaged in various sports, and represents the second outdoor mural project undertaken by students of the Spirit of Huntington Art Center following that of the Village Green building. Erich is now actively seeking new mural locations so come springtime, he and the Center’s students can resume their outdoor artwork.

“With the benefit of understanding from personal experience, my art therapy training, and my faith in God, I now understand that my diagnosis has led me to something far greater than I could have imagined,” Erich reflected. “It is very important and rewarding to me to help others overcome the same difficulties I encountered.”

With that kind of upbeat spirit and sincere desire to help others, I have no doubt Erich Preis is well on his way to transforming his success story into more of the same for those fortunate enough to learn from him. What’s just as exciting is along the way, Erich and his protégés will leave a trail of beautiful murals for all of Huntington to enjoy.


One in a billion

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that one billion people are actively using the social media tool he created in his Harvard dormitory room in 2004.

Zuckerberg’s October 4th post stated, “Helping a billion people connect is amazing, humbling and by far the thing I am most proud of in my life.”

One billion. That’s a humongous number. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the world’s population at 7.04 billion.  That means approximately 1 in 7 people on Earth is using Facebook.

I am one in that billion who can attest to the power of Facebook in making important and meaningful, if not life changing, connections.

I recall my introduction to Facebook in early 2007, when it was mostly the sacred stomping ground of the youth of America. Our daughters signed on to interact with their high school peers, and later, Facebook helped them get to know their college roommates months before they even stepped foot into their dorm rooms.

In March of 2008 I decided to join the Facebook community to participate in the planning of our 30 year high school reunion. It did not take long to understand our daughters’ fascination with the site. Almost instantly, I was interacting with people I had not seen since high school. I particularly enjoyed seeing photos of our respective children, who looked remarkably like we did the last time we were together. Although we were scattered far and wide across America, on Facebook, the Huntington High School Class of 1979 could once again share the same space.

By far the most remarkable connection I owe to Mark Zuckerberg’s ingenuity came late one evening in 2010 as I was scanning my news feed. A private message arrived from Lutz Wolff, whom I realized bore the same name as my first cousin who lived near Berlin, Germany. For much of my life, Cold War geopolitical barriers had made it virtually impossible for my mother to visit or correspond with her brother and his family, so I never got to meet or know my Uncle Kuni, his wife and their four sons, Lutz among them. While my grandmother, mother and two uncles had survived WWII as refugees, Checkpoint Charlie and then later, the Berlin Wall, eventually closed in on Uncle Kuni, effectively cutting him off from his mother and brother who had lived in Frankfurt, and his sister, who had married and moved to the United States.

In the thirty years the Berlin Wall stood, this hideously conceived fortification had achieved its architects’ intent of sealing off its inhabitants from movement or interaction within the outside free world. That was made certain by the wall having been perfected over time to prevent a series of daring escape attempts by freedom seekers trapped in the former German Democratic Republic. The impassable wall definitely irked a few who summoned the courage to dig underground tunnels, drive through it, hide themselves in car engine compartments, construct hot air balloons, jump from buildings, or crawl through sewer pipes to free themselves on the other side. But for most, like my cousin Lutz’s family, it had become an accepted fact of life. Even when the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 with the reunification of Germany, it continued to cast a long and dark shadow.

As a result there was very little I knew about Uncle Kuni and his family, who my mom had often explained to her inquiring children, “were trapped behind the Iron Curtain.” I did know, however, one important piece of information: my cousin Lutz and my brother shared the same birthday. Mom must have told the story a dozen or more times: On October 13, 1958 my grandmother in Frankfurt received word of the arrivals of her first two grandchildren: Lutz Wolff in the German Democratic Republic, and my brother in America.

Over fifty years later, Facebook offered Lutz the means to search for and make contact with his American family. He validated his family connection to me by sharing the same story of his and my brother’s shared birthdays (a story that had apparently been told to him as well), and noted the names of our maternal grandparents, and of his father, my Uncle Kuni.

I am unable to describe in words the feeling of euphoria that overwhelmed me as I wrote back to Lutz. I had lost hope in ever being able know this branch of my family after my mother had passed away.

 

Sometime later Lutz wrote to let me know that his two sons, Christian and Marcus, had planned to visit New York for the first time. In July 2011, once again via Facebook, Christian sent me a message that he and Marcus had arrived in New York, and we made plans for them to stay with us. My husband and I spent one wonderful week introducing these young men to Long Island, Manhattan and their newfound American family.

Mom used to become upset and angry whenever she saw the motto displayed on the license plates of New Hampshire cars that read: “Live Free or Die.” I now understand the motto was a chilling and painful reminder that her brother Kuni was not a free man, but in mom’s mind, that did not mean he should have to die. She missed him terribly.

Unfortunately, mom passed away the same year Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. I cannot help but wonder what a joy and thrill it would have been for her to discover Facebook, as I did, as a means to connect with the family from whom she had been long separated.

What were the chances that my cousin Lutz and I would finally connect with so many obstacles preceding us, not the least of which once included the Berlin Wall?

To me, if feels like one in a billion.

 

My cousin Lutz’s sons Christian and Marcus with me at Jones Beach.


Lost and found in Gold Coast history

 

 

My brother Steve and I at the L'Ecluse Greenhouse

 

I spent a large part of my childhood in the late sixties and early seventies exploring the abandoned ruins of a now vanished Gold Coast mansion.

In 1964 my parents built their house on the property where the Milton L’Ecluse mansion once stood. The stunning Italian Renaissance Revival residence and estate structures were constructed sometime before 1919, and were designed by the M.I.T. and Ecole des Beaux-Arts-trained architect John A. Gurd (1870-1924).

The L’Ecluse mansion was sadly demolished in the early sixties to make way for a residential developer’s vision for a new waterfront subdivision in Huntington called Terra Mar Drive. Despite the modern residential development frenzy that at the time was causing the remnants of Long Island’s Gold Coast to disappear from sight forever, several vestiges of the L’Ecluse estate managed to avert the wrecking ball.

The abandoned estate vestiges were barely holding on by the time I was old enough to explore them. I could see some of them from my bedroom window facing the rear of our property. A horse stable. A greenhouse complex. A carriage house. Their inhabitants were long gone but I stumbled upon all kinds of clues that transformed many a summer day into a real life Nancy Drew mystery novel.

The former horse stables and barn were wide open and accessible. The decaying wood planks from the walls and floors offered up occasional whiffs hinting at the horses and equipment that once filled the stalls. I noted faded scrawl on the walls that I presumed to be horse’s names, numbers (their height?) and dates (their birth?). Like those before me, I figured out how to hoist myself high up into the hay loft that instantly became my secret club house. Rays of sunlight shot through large and small holes in the sagging roof, highlighting swirling particles of dirt and other debris. But it was paradise to me.

The greenhouse complex was a greater challenge and danger to explore. The floor was covered with shattered glass interwoven with clinging ivy and fallen leaves that had gained entry through the now windowless greenhouse frame. Generations of large box turtles made their habitats safely beneath the greenhouse tables in rich dark soil that heaved up squirming earthworms and other unsightly creatures.

It took me days to figure out how to access the locked and abandoned adjoining greenhouse caretaker’s quarters, and when I finally did, I felt like an intruder. The space was still filled with the former occupant’s furnishings and personal belongings, as if he or she had only just departed, although its contents were clearly reminiscent of an era yet known to or understood by me. I spent hours studying these fascinating objects but I dared not remove them in the event the mysterious occupant chose to return. I often let my imagination run wild and pretended it was I who lived in that lonely space lost in time.

The carriage house was nothing more than a large and terribly uninteresting garage until I discovered, it too, had its own adjoining living quarters. A rear window revealed a ransacked kitchen and on the soffit above the sink, a doll-like figurine hung on the wall. Oddly, she resembled sweet Aunt Jemima on the pancake syrup bottle label. Still, I grew terrified of that doll when one day I noticed with great concern that she had somehow changed her body position.

Upon leaving each day, I carefully examined and committed to memory exactly how the carriage house kitchen doll was positioned. Sure enough, the following day I noticed her arms were now to the left while the day before they were to the right. Each new day found the doll in a new configuration. I was convinced she was alive, or the place was haunted, or both. My older brother Steve later confessed to manipulating the figurine into ever changing positions to spook me. He succeeded.

One afternoon I found a way to climb into the loft of the carriage house, whereupon I unearthed the most exciting discovery of all, a trunk filled with very old toys and books. I shared my bounty with some neighborhood kids who started to follow me in my daily explorations. The spoils included an original Mickey Mouse picture book, a striped ball, and a few rag dolls in frilly dresses, among other things. Gauging from the musty smell inside of the trunk that was now consuming these objects, it was obvious they had not seen the light of day in many, many years.

I gave away all but one book that I still have in my personal library and treasure today.  It is titled Pinocchio in Africa and has a book plate inside that reads: “Private Library of Beatrice Boynton, April 10, 1912” inscribed just days before the fateful sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic.

In all these years I have never been able to find out who Beatrice Boynton is, and if she was related to anyone in the L’Ecluse family. My best guess is she was the daughter of an estate worker.

I am grateful for those early years of exploration in decaying estate buildings filled with interesting treasures and other surprises, some not always pleasant, but thrilling nonetheless. It was in those dark and dreary spaces that I found a way to further spark and light my imagination that was already well-fueled by the natural curiosity and wonder of a child. It was also there where my love of history and magnificent old buildings first took hold.

I continue to be captivated by Long Island’s Gold Coast, its history, and the glorious mansions that towered along the North Shore, the likes of which inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to write The Great Gatsby.

Certainly the L’Ecluse mansion and its estate vestiges, some of which continue to stand in Huntington Bay today, will forever hold deep personal meaning to me. But more recently it has been OHEKA Castle, Long Island’s largest Gold Coast mansion, that has harnessed my heart, imagination and energies enough to co-author, with Ellen Schaffer, a book about its remarkable history, published by Arcadia Publishing. OHEKA Castle is available in bookstores or via Facebook, OHEKA Castle, the book.

I am grateful to have been raised in a time and place that enabled childhood exploration and curiosity to take hold long and hard enough to become an adult passion that in very many ways, continues to define who I am today.


Huntington Station is Rising

 

 

A spirited community meeting this week got me thinking about what I could recall of an era in our Town’s history that neither time or events can erase from the minds of those who lived to see it: 1960s Urban Renewal in Huntington Station, and its unforgiving aftermath.

For many, the lingering malaise over unfulfilled promises of that “urban renewal plan” can be cut with a knife.

As a Huntington High School student during the late seventies, I dropped quite a bit of my babysitting earnings at the “Big H” shopping center. The high school’s then open-campus policy allowed us to venture to the nearby Big H during lunch period or study halls.

A short walk led to a slice of “real pizza” and to our favorite clothing boutique called Select, or to Martins, Woolworth and Sears. On weekends we headed to the York Theater nestled in the corner of the shopping center.

When I returned home from college in the mid-eighties I was saddened to see how the once thriving and popular shopping center had fallen into decline. By the late 1980s the Big H had hit an all-time low. The stores we had once loved were reduced to dark vacant spaces.

The departure of longtime anchor tenant Sears was the most sobering indicator that the Big H was in trouble. While a Pathmark eventually occupied the space that was once Sears, it struggled too, and eventually closed.

Fortunately, the nineties brought about the successful private redevelopment of the Big H property under the leadership of Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone.

What was once an eyesore had now been transformed into a thriving commercial center anchored by national retailers, along with a Town-managed community center that was negotiated as part of the Big H redevelopment plan. The $30 million private sector revival of the Big H marked the Town’s first step in the revitalization of Huntington Station.

By the time I joined Supervisor Petrone’s staff in early 2002, Huntington Station’s continuing revitalization remained at the forefront of his agenda, and the Supervisor assigned me to assist him in advancing those goals. In doing so, I found myself working alongside an administration that was the first to begin the process of addressing the unfulfilled promises of Urban Renewal that preceded them by nearly a half century.

The Town, in response to community input solicited via the Town of Huntington Economic Development Corporation (EDC), for which I serve as Executive Director, invested millions in local, state, county and federal grant funds enhancing the New York Avenue streetscape with new curbs, brick sidewalks, decorative streetlights and street trees.

We’ve acquired and developed parcels to create Huntington Station Gateway Park, featuring a community garden. Next in the cue is the transformation of a blighted former NYSDOT right of way into an attractive pedestrian plaza to be known as Gateway Plaza.

It has taken some years to secure and cobble together grants from various sources to fund these community enhancements, but at last, most of our public projects have come out of the ground.

We also responded to residents who asked for a new grocery store and recreational opportunities by cultivating and fast-tracking private sector redevelopments, resulting in the Huntington Station Food Plaza and Station Sports Family Fun Center.

In addition to serving the community, these completed projects, among many others, are a clear signal of a municipality’s commitment to Huntington Station using all of the resources local government can bring to bear.

But we know there is more work to do.

The Town and EDC reached a crossroads about one year ago in planning for its next step in the restoration of Huntington Station’s downtown business district.

Despite our best efforts, individual developers were reluctant to invest in piecemeal developments at specific sites without the knowledge and confidence of a privately-driven comprehensive New York Avenue commercial corridor overhaul in the works.

I was born a bit too late to have a clear memory of the Huntington Station downtown, the heart of which was ripped out under federal Urban Renewal. But many families, especially longtime Huntington Station residents David and Barbara Campbell, who bought their home on Northridge Street in the fifties, remember it well.

The lost downtown featured convenience retail with apartments above, akin to Huntington Village.

Barbara Campbell told me that the realtor highlighted the fact that Huntington Station’s downtown area was under “Urban Renewal” as a major selling feature. When Barbara asked what Urban Renewal was, the realtor could only surmise that whatever it was, it had to be good. After all, isn’t the word “renewal” one that connotes something positive and new?

A few years later, the Campbells watched the downtown strip across from Northridge Street get bulldozed to the ground and replaced with a parking lot.

Like so many, David and Barbara Campbell are still waiting for a reprise of their downtown, as are the hundreds who turned out for our community meeting focused on Huntington Station’s future downtown redevelopment.

Despite the differences of opinion that have fueled heated debates about Huntington Station,  the Town and community have always shared the common goal of seeing its revitalization to completion.

The meeting provided an opportunity to introduce the newest partner at the table, Don Monti, and his Renaissance Downtowns, LLC team, as the Town’s selected private Master Developer for Huntington Station.

Renaissance will lease office space at 1266 New York Avenue that is located in the heart of Huntington Station’s commercial corridor. In this way, Renaissance can be closely situated for the ease and convenience of residents seeking information or otherwise looking to get involved.

Renaissance plans to launch a social media platform as another tool to solicit ideas and build community consensus. In addition to their personal meet-ups, the social media platform will allow virtual community meetings to be held, thoughtful discussions to take place, and resident ideas to be shared and voted upon to warrant further study and action.

Renaissance’s approach to a comprehensive community-driven redevelopment, marked by “process before plan,” will build off of the multi-million dollar foundation created by the Town’s many public improvements.

In partnership, the Town and community, with a master developer at their side prepared to invest millions into Huntington Station, can move forward to achieve the mutual goal of completing the revitalization in a way that we can all be proud of.

Huntington Station is rising.

I am hopeful that when those shovels start hitting the ground, we can haul away the 1960s Urban Renewal malaise along with the construction debris.


Music and the Mentor: An unlikely friendship

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It’s funny how certain things can trigger vivid memories of people and places from your past.

The scent of the same perfume worn by my first grade teacher can instantly place me back into Mrs. Felt’s classroom at Flower Hill Elementary School. Listening to Sirius Radio’s 80’s channel transports me back to college. Taking the back roads to Walt Whitman Mall, the same roads that led us to the home of Eugene Selesner, always remind me of our too short, but, important time with him.

Eugene (Gene) Selesner was a retired music teacher who taught for 20 years at Simpson and Finley Junior High Schools in Huntington, and before that, in Newark, New Jersey, until he relocated his family to Melville in 1968. But to us, during his last years, he became our daughter Kristina’s piano teacher and mentor, and dear family friend.

This is a story of an unlikely friendship between a reticent high school sophomore, and a fast-on-his-feet octogenarian who left an indelible imprint on her psyche. To do it justice, I will tell the story in a literary duet of both mine and Kristina’s voices – hers extracted from a college application essay she wrote to describe a memorable person. Kristina’s words appear in italics.

And so the story begins.

My mind raced.  I had waited eagerly for the start of my piano lessons, but never anticipated being instructed by some “geezer” who, from my own assessment, looked as if he had been out of touch with the world for the last decade. Seeing this wizened man standing in the threshold had taken me by complete surprise, but not the kind of surprise one looks forward to. I glanced back at my mother in the car, fighting off the urge to run back to her and vent. However, my next steps were through the doorway and into his depressing abode.

In observing this scene from my car, I remember applying a Kung Fu grip on the steering wheel after catching a glimpse of Mr. Selesner’s stern-looking face peering at Kristina from behind his storm door. We selected Mr. Selesner by word of mouth, and therefore had never actually met him. I watched my daughter take a few anxious steps backward. Her teen instinct had her poised to bolt on a moment’s notice. Picking up on her subtle hesitation with a well-honed radar for typical teen behavior, Mr. Selesner waved at me in my car and quickly escorted Kristina into the house. As the door closed behind them, I crossed my fingers and headed to the mall to kill one hour.

We were both silent for a few moments. As he tidied up his living room, I was able to stand back and fully take in my surroundings. The house was eternally dark, despite the 65 and sunny forecast for the day. It was furnished with orange colors and styles dating back to the 1970s and the smell of cigarettes was potent, all but knocking me off my feet. We walked into what I assumed was the living room-turned-music-room that housed an impressive grand piano and vast collection of CDs and musical compositions. Two black shelves stood tall at the back of the room, sheet music spilling out from every angle.

Mr. Selesner sat down in front of the piano and called me over to him. As we sat side by side, I still questioned whether I would be able to stick it out with this man for the next hour, let alone any future lessons. “Play me something,” he said coolly. All I knew at the time were a few songs from memory which I began to play as best I could. From my peripheral, I saw him studying the movement of my hands across the keys and hoped he wasn’t doing so disapprovingly. When I finished, I looked up at him, bracing myself for the anticipated criticism. To my surprise, my new piano teacher complimented me on my ear for music and said he saw immense potential. I could feel myself slowly relaxing in his presence as we dove head-on into our first lesson. 

Maybe I would give this guy a shot after all.

Walking the mall, I kept a close watch on time. It felt like one of the longest hours of my life and I wondered if Mr. Selesner would be successful in getting Kristina to utter more than her usual one to two-word sentences.

Our talks ventured from music, to literature, to geography, and then, to just everyday life. I was amazed at what a conversationalist this old guy was. He was opinionated, had razor-sharp wit, and could talk the paint off the walls. Most importantly, he was someone with whom I could somehow relate. I no longer felt intimidated by the years he had on me, and if I closed my eyes, it was almost as if I was talking to one of my peers. I left Mr. Selesner’s house feeling completely proven wrong, but I was oddly okay with it. 

That first piano lesson was the beginning of an important learning experience and friendship for Kristina, who up until that point had never spent time alone with anyone above the age of 65 other than her grandparents. These were uncharted waters for a kid who at that time barely wanted to be within ten feet of her parents for an hour’s time, let alone an elderly stranger.

But before our eyes, the unexpected occurred.

With each lesson, I gained a better understanding of the piano and of Mr. Selesner himself. He was brilliant, and it didn’t take me long to realize that there was a lot I could learn from him. He had so many stories to tell about his own experiences as a performing pianist, and later, as a junior high school music teacher. I could tell he was dying to share them with the world, or whoever would listen anyway. Our lessons would go by in one, colorful flash of an hour.

We all could not seem to get enough of Gene. Following Kristina’s lessons my husband Greg and I enjoyed hearing him tell stories of his experiences playing the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskills with stars like Harry Belafonte, Barbra Streisand and Alan King. Gene was big on “name that tune” and would keep us on our musical toes by drilling us with a vengeance until we summoned the correct answers. He took delicious glee in stumping us.

My weekly lessons with Mr. Selesner became a routine part of my life and were just about necessary to my sanity. They were my escape from the stresses and anxieties of high school, college preparation and everyday life. During this time, the soothing sounds of the piano would transport me to a place where my troubles were nonexistent. After the lesson, Mr. Selesner and I would shoot the breeze and talk about current affairs and books. If there was one thing he loved more than music, it was the written word.  He wanted to know what and who I was reading. Mr. Selesner enjoyed a good read almost as much as a melodic sonata by Mozart.

Indeed, Gene was a true character, full of life and enthusiasm in his love of music, art, books, politics and good food. He had a wonderful, dry sense of humor. In a note to Kristina, Gene wrote: Dear Kris,  Saw the article on your winning squeeze bunt. Congratulations! And you’ll always be a winner. Hope you’re settling on your college of choice. By the way, can you still tell the difference between the black and the white keys?  Love to your parents and as much to you.  -Gene Selesner. Soon Greg and I were trading books and recipes with Gene, and were introduced to his lovely lady friend, Honey, herself an artist whose paintings adorned Gene’s music room.

On Saturday nights our family would head to Cooke’s Inn for dinner and to listen to Gene entertain diners on a small white piano like a seasoned lounge performer, where he also enjoyed playing “name that tune” to test our music IQs. It wasn’t enough that we could name the title of songs, we also had to name their composers. Gene’s playing would, without fail, lift people from their seats and onto the floor singing and dancing like Broadway performers. Gene knew exactly which tunes would elicit these Broadway moments, and quite skillfully, slipped them in between dinner and dessert. Afterwards, Cooke’s Inn guests raised to their feet to cheer and applaud Gene and all those who spontaneously joined him to share their own talents.

It became evident to me that Mr. Selesner’s main passion in life was music. His face would light up every time he heard the word “concerto” or spoke about the brilliant, yet troubled composers of ages past. Mr. Selesner once told me that music was more of a feeling than a sound. The more time I spent with him, the more I understood what he meant by that. Through his stories, I realized that the piano had become a vehicle he used to transport himself through a gateway to opportunity and adventure. The piano had taken him so many places he never expected to go. 

One place Kristina never expected to go was on the bench in front of the little white piano at Cooke’s Inn, when one Saturday night Gene took great delight in introducing his student, and invited her to play a piece they had been working on together that week. Greg and I braced ourselves for Kristina to decline the invitation, but instead, she approached the piano with complete confidence and played beautifully for the crowd. Nobody was more proud of Kristina than her mentor, who basked in the resulting applause with an almost fatherly pride and joy.

One day it all became clear to me. From all outward appearances, Mr. Selesner’s dim, smoky house seemed unappealing and gloomy, but to him it was paradise. There in that unassuming music room he created a sanctuary to do what he loved most in the world – playing the piano. During that moment of clarity, I put all my superficial judgments aside, and instead reveled in how he was able to achieve so much self-fulfillment. It made me aspire to find the same kind of passion and peace in my own world.

Gene Selesner enjoyed a life long love affair with music. Upon his retirement from School District 3, he continued to teach music privately to both students and adults, and also directed the Choir at West Hills Methodist Church. In addition to his weekend gig at Cooke’s Inn, he wrote and performed original scores for silent films shown at the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre.

Knowing Mr. Selesner not only gave me a deeper appreciation and connection with music, but also gave me something even more valuable.  Our friendship showed me that outward appearances and the judgments we pass on people mean absolutely nothing. I now look back foolishly to the first day we met, only to realize how narrow my view of people and the world was. 

On October 23, 2008, just before Kristina was able to put the finishing touches on her college application essay about Gene Selesner, Honey called us to share the sad news that he had suddenly passed away. Some time later Cooke’s Inn closed, ending an era marked by the fabulous food of Juanita Cooke, combined with the lively piano entertainment of Eugene Selesner enjoyed by so many on Saturday nights.

 As I sat at his funeral service and watched people get up one after another to speak their piece about this marvelous man, I thought about the countless lives he had touched during his eighty two years. Many people, like me, had the blessing of having been taught by, or having simply known, Mr. Selesner. With both tears and a smile, I entertained images of him in heaven shooting the breeze with Cole Porter, Chopin, and many other great pianists in history. 

While countless junior high school students, private students, music colleagues and friends alike have discovered through Gene Selesner the power and magic of music in connecting and celebrating humanity, Kristina especially learned a profound life lesson. I think Gene would be proud to know that she is now forging her own path in college to enter the arts and entertainment world as a filmmaker, in part, fueled by his own passion for the arts, his friendship, and last but not least, the confidence he bestowed in this once reticent teenager.


Magnus has a message

 

 

 

He is known for his radiant smile, random acts of kindness, enthusiastic patronage of Huntington Village business establishments, and most especially, his ardent support of authors at Book Revue book signing events.

His name is Magnus Walsh, and now he has a story of his own to tell. Five O’Clock & All’s Well is Magnus’ compilation in book form of his own interactions with fellow Huntington residents, and the insightful take-aways he offers from those personal experiences. It is a quick and delightful read released in perfect time just before Christmas and Hanukkah to underscore the power and joy of goodwill toward others.

Magnus’ moment of inspiration occurred on January 15, 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 was successfully ditched in the Hudson River six minutes after takeoff after being disabled by a flock of Canada geese.  “I was mesmerized by this event and overcome by emotion over its successful outcome.  It exemplified to me that good things can come from bad,” Magnus recalled.

And so came the impetus that set Magnus on a quest to find ways to transform any bad or ordinary day, whether it be his own or another’s, into a good day. Magnus’ tools to kick the blues and bad moods include a big wide smile, a loud hearty laugh, a good deed, a positive attitude, and appreciation of nature and life’s simple pleasures. These are not especially tall demands for a fellow who possesses a clear joie de vivre and immense love for people. So much affection, in fact, Magnus refers to his new book as “a love letter to my readers.”

Much like a diary, each chapter of Magnus’ book chronicles a memorable day in his life interacting with neighbors, friends, local merchants or perfect strangers in and around Huntington. The brevity and simplicity of each entry gives me pause. In my own writing I work to draw out obscure or elusive themes connected to people and situations. Magnus doesn’t have to dig that deep to touch his readers. Through each vignette, Magnus shows us that most everything we need to know to bring joy to others or to ourselves is usually sitting right at the surface.

But even the jovial Magnus admits that at times he battles the blues and a few of them are chronicled in his book. “It’s completely natural to find yourself or others around you down in the dumps and there’s no shame in that,” Magnus told me. “My message is we all have the power to break those bad cycles if we only set our minds to it.” In one example, Magnus washes away the bitter taste of waiting too long at the Department of Motor Vehicles by chasing it down with a sweet bargain at nearby Marshalls.

Magnus loves to write and it shows. But as with most things in his life, Magnus brought this book to us with a little help from his friends known as the Magnus Book Planning Committee (or the “MBPC”).   In his book, the author thanks the MBPC for their encouragement, review and good suggestions from start to finish. MBPC members include B. Hanson, Helen Crosson, Michael Fairchild, Walter Kolos, Pam Sherlock and Terry Walton.

Interestingly, Magnus told me that his new book is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. As I ponder to make the connection between Fitzgerald’s entertaining yet ultimately tragic Roaring Twenties saga and Magnus’ opus, Magnus opens my eyes once again. He reminds me, “Jay Gatsby lived each day of his life as if it were his last, and he was never judgmental of people.”  It’s no surprise that Magnus is also a huge fan of Mitch Albom, author of numerous mood lifting and bestselling books.  Albom’s breakthrough book, Tuesdays with Morrie,remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 205 weeks.

So on fire with the release of his new book, Magnus is on a literary tear. His goal is to publish one book a year for the next ten years. He already knows the title of the next one will be Three O’Clock & All’s Well and it will feature vignettes associated with school aged children. After that, Magnus plans to write Gone to the Beach. And just like Five O’Clock & All’s Well, his next books will be available at his all-time favorite Huntington bookstore, Book Revue. For Magnus, this is the stuff of which dreams are made.

I have just received one of the very first copies of Magnus’ book. I am anxious to read it in between last minute Christmas shopping and holiday preparations. So off it goes with me to the nail salon where I now have one hand on the manicure table, and the other balancing Magnus’ book on my lap as I read. I am smiling as I learn about the grumpy waitress who wasn’t so grumpy after earning a big tip and how and why Magnus was Jewish for one day.

Suddenly, I am inspired. I realize that in all of the time I have been getting my manicure from Sandra, she rarely smiles. I look up a few times in an attempt to make eye contact and offer her a sincere smile. Sandra manages a half smile, but quickly returns to the important work of making my nails perfect for the holidays. She is a skilled and hard worker who deserves a good day. I am thinking to myself, now what would Magnus do?

And then it dawns to me. The answer is so simple! I offer Sandra a spectacular tip. As I hand the bill to Sandra the pleasure is all mine in watching the joy slowly register on her face that culminates in one of the most gracious smiles I have ever seen. She almost jumps across the manicure table to thank me. Sandra is happy because she’s had a good day.

But with the exhilaration I’m now feeling for having carried out a good deed, I know Sandra’s good day cannot possibly top mine.


American Dreams

Grandpa.jpg

My paternal grandfather, Salvatore De Vito, arrived on the shores of New York with his wife and young son just in time for the Great Depression. A former Italian military officer and astute businessman, he chose America over a prestigious military career in Italy. Salvatore had big dreams of opening a vaudeville house in New York City, but that grandiose plan would have to wait. Times were tough and he had to find a way to make a buck.

To feed his growing family, Salvatore rode out the Great Depression hauling heavy blocks of ice up and down the narrow stairways of tenements in the Bronx. There, he had made a home in a cramped, but neat apartment at 1270 Nelson Avenue. The proud Depression era iceman was no stranger to America and capitalism. He had previously immigrated as a bachelor in the 1910’s. Filled with desire to invest everything he had in America, Salvatore used his life savings and some inheritance money to purchase many acres of undeveloped land in New Jersey, land now known as Hoboken.

But the call of duty to serve his native country at the onset of World War I forced Salvatore to sell all those acres in New Jersey. A practical man, he knew his odds of surviving that war were slim. But unsurprisingly as the fearless and honorable man I remember him to be, Salvatore narrowly survived a bloody battle during the final days of WWI, leaving him the last man barely standing in his company, determined to hold that strategic ground for Italy. For his valor, in 1918 he was decorated with Italy’s “la Croce al Merito di Guerra” (equivalent to America’s purple heart) and promised a long and successful Italian military career.

But the ever-powerful lure of New York City and its streets “paved in gold” drew Salvatore back to America, where he would have to endure a struggle of a different kind, this time for his piece of the American dream in the worst possible times.

Jack Dempsey

Grandpa earned his U.S. citizenship in 1930, and by the end of that decade, had saved enough to buy a building at 448 West 42nd Street. He transformed it into a thriving landmark theatre district bar and restaurant known as La Conca D’Oro (Shower of Gold) A fellow bar owner who happened to be the feisty legendary heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Dempsey, later became his close friend and confidante. Dempsey, too, knew all too well that hard work and struggle were the precursors to the American Dream.

Describes Roger Kahn in his biography about Dempsey: A Flame of Pure Fire “This then was the life of teenage Jack Dempsey: fighting when he could get a fight. Working in the depths, or as someone fiercely put it, “a Caliban in the mines.” Riding the rods. Sleeping in whorehouses. And, when there was no mining work, nor any fights, standing on a street corner.”

My father once told me that Grandpa and Dempsey would very often share a drink and conversation in the early morning hours after closing down their respective establishments. I would love to have been a fly on the wall during their discussions. I could have extracted a treasure trove of invaluable insights and words of wisdom.

I believe when we look to our own families and to history, we can find inspiration and hope that better tomorrows do come.  For me, those lessons come from a celebrated American boxer and his Italian immigrant friend, my grandfather.

Both were fighters who shared the brightest of dreams in the dimmest of times.


A window to their world

 

 

It’s mind boggling how many high tech gadgets we have at our disposal to share and retrieve information, and to make connections to people in our local and global community.  But for some, an old fashioned landline telephone remains their only conduit to the outside world.

During my near decade in government I have easily fielded thousands of calls from residents seeking assistance or information about local projects and quality of life issues.  No matter the kind of questions, suggestions or criticisms they bring, I never take for granted the rare privilege of being at the other end of the phone.

Over time, many of these callers have become regular visitors to our office where they share their thoughts in person.  Others make time to attend various Town meetings to do that. I enjoy connecting names with faces, and helping citizens find a place to cultivate activism on issues that are meaningful to them.

But I have never met Barry or John.  They have been calling me for years, and when they do, I have to fully pause from reviewing endless emails or other distractions on my desktop so I can listen closely, and learn.

Barry is a resident of a local nursing home.  I don’t know much about him other than the fact that he is always full of questions about Town affairs, and is very appreciative to get answers to them or information in general.   Barry, it appears, makes use of a shared telephone at the nursing home so our conversations are brief.  He calls regularly to get updates on our ongoing Huntington Station projects, the progress and opening of the new Paramount Theatre, or to get population statistics on the Town.  The last time Barry called it was for the express purpose to tell me that he saw my name in the newspaper. He needed only to share that with me during his limited phone time, and the enthusiasm in his voice made me smile.

I know a bit more about John. He is of Italian descent and was born on June 1, 1920, just a few days before my father.  Raised in Cold Spring Harbor, he moved to Huntington Station in the late forties after completing his service in the military. John, a very proper gentleman, first called about six years ago to share a concern he had about his neighborhood.  Reaching out to government to register a complaint was not something John was used to doing, and he was almost apologetic about it until I reassured him that his communication was vital in helping us to do our work.

John lives near the properties now being developed into Station Sports Family Fun Center, and as a former avid golfer, he is especially pleased about the miniature golf course soon to be enjoyed there.  He has been watching this project with great anticipation since the day it broke ground, and reports in regularly to me on its progress.

During one of our telephone calls, I informed John that he had become the eyes and ears of his neighborhood, and he seemed to fidget a bit with that idea, as if he was trying it on for size, before he proudly accepted the role.  His age and health prevent him from venturing too far beyond his property on his own, but the windows of John’s home and the telephone on his desk are all he needs to help feel connected with the outside world.  After getting to know John over these years, I know he feels empowered in knowing that he has found a portal in local government to help bring about positive change for himself, and his neighbors.

My maternal grandparents lived overseas so I didn’t get to spend much time with them.  My widowed paternal grandmother lived in Forest Hills and often visited our family’s home in Huntington while I was growing up.  I lost her before I was mature enough to fully realize how important it is for us to give generations above us our time and attention, because often, it’s all they want or need.   During my mom and dad’s last years, I did my best to be generous with my time and attention.  The level of appreciation I received in return from them for that made me feel like a rock star.

That’s kind of how I feel when Barry and John call.  What’s most ironic about my interactions with them is that while they are the ones who hang up the phone feeling grateful for the time and help I can give, I don’t think either of them possibly realize how grateful I am for what they give to me.  We never stop growing and learning, and there is no better font of wisdom and life experience to be found, than at the feet of those who came before us.

I may never get to meet Barry or John, but it doesn’t matter.  We have a connection.  And I am better for it.