Passing Through

It has been almost six months since I last walked the streets of New York City.  I am glad to be back to my old routine: early morning New York Times pick-up, visit Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, haircut and shave at York Barber, and then breakfast at Neil’s Coffee Shop.  Except Neil’s is gone, evicted for nonpayment of rent.  I read about its demise in The New York Post before I left Florida.   Apparently, the longtime owner filed for bankruptcy in 2022 and died in early 2023.  Now it is in the hands of the landlord. As Yogi Berra said, “In New York nothing changes but everything.”

I found an old interview with the late proprietor, who said ownership of Neil’s was handed over only once, in 1980, from the original owner to him, and he was determined to keep everything as it was, including the same 1951 cash register and 1954 milkshake blender which “still work just fine.”  The upholstery was updated and that was it. Neil’s first opened its doors in 1940, one of the many Greek diners that proliferated in mid-century Manhattan, serving coffee to go in the iconic Grecian-themed blue paper cups–a New York artifact once seen everywhere, but now a rarity since the invasion of Starbucks.   The original neon sign hung out front on day one was there for the next 83 years. I went myself to confirm and for once The Post got it right. Neil’s was closed, dark and locked.  I peered in the window.  Chairs upended on tables.  A lone can of spray cleaner on the counter.

I had been going to Neil’s since 1964, when I moved into the city from New Jersey after law school. It was my go-to diner after I got married and we bought an apartment on 71st Street. Our girls were small when we moved again to 68th Street—also an easy walking distance to Neil’s. We had countless family breakfasts and father-daughter lunches in those old booths, until we moved out of the city in 1972.    I returned to Neil’s periodically over the years since then, while visiting my grandchildren who live on the upper east side.  We meet at the Carlyle hotel, where I stay when I’m in town, only a few blocks from our favorite coffee shop.  They enjoyed it I like to think because they could see how much it meant to me to take them there. That and the ice cream sundaes.

Rough around the edges, I don’t think Neil’s had an indoor paint job in the 50-plus years I went there. The tables and booths were squeezed into space that should accommodate half the number. The fire code inspector must have been a regular and looked the other way.  Visiting the men’s room in the basement was like going down into the subway.  But the food was consistent –the oversized omelets and home fries were reliable breakfast comfort food.  Nothing like a toasted bagel and cream cheese from Neil’s.  Oh, how I miss those early morning wake up meals.

 There are other changes in the neighborhood.  The CVS on the corner of Third Avenue and 68th Street has shut its doors.  As I write this I see the windows at The Food Emporium across the street are filled with closing signs instead of the usual grocery store displays.  Things feel diminished.  Except for the New York Hospital workforce crowds coming up from the subway at 68th and Lexington, the pedestrian traffic seems to have abated.  It seems like there are even fewer dogs on the sidewalks.  Perhaps it is the weather.  It has been colder and people are staying indoors.  Could it be spring break time for schools, so everyone is away?  Restaurants seem quieter too.  Something is happening here in New York City.  People are leaving it.  Now that office attendance is not mandated, there has been a migration to more affordable places to work remotely.  I work in my own office in East Hampton no more than six months out of the year.  With Zoom and before that Skype, I connect remotely with my office and have been doing so for 15 years.  I met a young woman recently while playing tennis who works for Goldman Sachs.  She relocated from New York to work in West Palm Beach.  “A better environment,” she said. “More outdoor time and less expensive.”  Yes, New York may be shrinking a bit.

 I found one busy place on my walk around the neighborhood:  the local library on 68th street.  Drawn in by the comfortable seating and a change of scene from an apartment–as well as the fact that it is “free” –people are flocking to libraries, sanctuaries of calm and quiet, no matter what might be going on outside. I belong to one on 79th Street where I hang out and work when I am in town. The Starbucks across the street is also lively. New York may be slightly less populous, but it will never be totally abandoned.  As time passes however, with the loss of places like Neil’s, there may not be enough to keep some of us here in place or coming back.

The Brightline

          For those who travel along the coastline in eastern Florida a train ride is usually Amtrack, which runs between northeast and southern Florida. I discovered a recent addition to this route: the Brightline, a new, modern short-run train between West Palm and Miami. Many of my friends recommended using this mode of transportation as a more comfortable means of travel than driving I-95, so when I had a business meeting last week in Coconut Grove, I decided to go by rail.
          Settling back into my seat I closed my eyes and thought back to my first train ride with my mother on the New York Central from Rochester to New York City in 1954 to attend my brother’s engagement party. I was 15 years old and mom had brought a picnic basket of food to hold me over during the 8-hour trip. My parents were kosher so there was no thought to ordering anything in the dining car except soda pop. I recall distinctly as the conductor came down the aisle to retrieve our tickets, Mom said to me “Lenny, you slink down and don’t show how tall you are” – my ticket was for ages 12 and under. Dad had warned her not to pay extra for an adult ticket for me. The conductor was none the wiser and I passed for 12 on that trip though I don’t think the charade would have worked for much longer. My father was an experienced train rider having traveled alone in 1918 at age 12 from his shtetl in Russia to Hamburg, Germany, to board a ship to Argentina. He had a singular train experience and it was certainly not a fun one, but that is a story for another column.
         There was no entertainment on the New York Central for a 15-year-old kid like me, but fortunately, I had a library copy of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” to pass the time. When I tired of reading I ran up and down the aisles of the train cars. I was always a talker and I recall making friends with some of the other adult passengers in the general seating areas. The uniformed ticket collectors were entertained by me and gave me a tour of the various railcars. The kitchen car was the most fun. I watched the cooks in their sparkling white chef’s caps preparing delicious-looking meals of chicken, roast beef, crab salad, and strawberry shortcake–none of which I was allowed to have. The baggage car held an orderly assortment of luggage and boxes for delivery ala FedEx today. There was an open-top observation car that must have been First Class. I spent a lot of time peering out the windows at the miles of farm fields as we passed through central New York and then turned south at Albany towards New York City, finally arriving at the gigantic Grand Central terminal. Seeing the mighty panoramic Kodak “Colorama” in the lobby was thrilling to me. My brother Marty met us in the main concourse and hustled us through the underground tunnels to his parked car. It was my first, unforgettable train adventure to New York City.
          I commuted by train later during my college years, between upstate and Newark, but soon I had a car –a Morris Minor –and drove the New York Thruway and New Jersey Turnpike back and forth to law school. Ultimately train travel ended for me and I like most people, except commuters and train enthusiasts, travel by air. The Brightline trip to Miami brought all these memories back and I thank that someone out there who created such nostalgia for me.

Fishing the Mitchell River

I fished a bit of the North Carolina-Virginia border last week.  The Mitchell River near Dobson, North Carolina, is a short drive from Winston-Salem.  A visit to my granddaughter Lilly, who is a freshman in college, provided me cover to take a day off to wet my toes and fingers in a cold, 40-degree trout stream.  My trip started with a short plane ride to Charlotte and then a drive to Winston-Salem where I spent an afternoon at Wake Forest with Lilly.  Lilly, our first grandchild, is a modern-day woman brimming with confidence and exuberance.  Our time together reassured me that my concern for her happiness, which incented me to visit, was misplaced.  Lilly has acclimated well to college life and is a mature young adult.  I was comfortable taking a day away to fish the morning not so lonely with my guide Dave Bergman, a transplanted New Jerseyan who, like all fishing guides, dreams of having his own fly shop someday.  We set out early morning with temps in the 40s.  I was geared up with my Icelandic kit – long johns, flannel pants, thick waders and layers of outer wear.  I was ready.  We fished a 4-weight rod nymphing our way along the riffles.  We scouted in vain for Browns and Brook but the Rainbow trout- 9” to 13” were plentiful that morning. The sky was bright.  The farmland surrounding the river was cut bare.  All the fishing paths to the water were devoid of fellow fishers.  The air was clear and smelled of recently plowed-over fields of soy.  I could have been in Maine, Pennsylvania or out west.  I felt complete.  My vocabulary was enriched by some new terms Dave taught me:  “chowder” (rough water); “boogie water” (shallow, rocky water moving at a swift pace). There is something unexplainable for me about fishing the mornings.  My mind is clear out on the water—a reminder of the times past before cell phones.  In fact, there was no cell service where we were.  Another reason to go back.  My only thoughts are to my back cast—to not entangle my line– and to keep my frozen feet moving.  Otherwise, I am happy and secure.

Out of the Mouths of Children

Much has been written of adult friendships and maintaining relationships.  Recently, the New York Times ran an article extolling the benefits of friendship as a way to improve quality of life physically and mentally.  It is a timely topic these days.  Mental health issues may be more easily dealt with when there is a friend to talk to and commiserate with when feeling low.  I find it encouraging that my grandson Billy confided to his mother about his own feelings of loneliness while he was at sleepaway camp last summer (Billy has okayed my sharing his experience):

“Sleepaway camp was my darkest days.  I never felt so alone,” he confessed.  “I had no friends.  It was there I decided that I would never feel that way again.” 

Billy was homesick and it was his first year at a camp.  The other campers had long-established connections going back many summers and it was hard to break into the group.   Billy has matured over the last year to a point to where he now feels free and comfortable enough to express his feelings.  I was proud of him.  I had encouraged him to go to camp.  His father, who did not have a good experience at sleepaway when he was young, assured him he could leave if he didn’t like it, but Billy stuck it out.  Billy was starting a new school in the fall and knew he did not want a repeat of his camp experience.  He went out of his way and made a real effort to connect with the kids in his class.  Today, at his new school, Billy has a bunch of new buddies, and his social life is almost as busy as his grandpa’s. 

Billy related his experience in a recent Uber ride:  

“I was driving up Park Avenue with my new best friend the other day and I looked out the car window and I said to myself, I did it. I’ve got a best friend, and everyone accepts me.   My friends are cool and this was my goal. My Bar Mitzvah will be the best party ever.” 

The New York Times article relates how keeping friends is not effortless.  Billy concurs: 

“You know it takes hard work to make friends.  Finding real friends is not easy.  Me and all my friends—all we do is laugh and do silly stuff.” 

That’s my Billy-boy.  I am looking forward to having Billy and his companions up at camp on the lake being silly.

Thanksgiving

This is my 83rd Thanksgiving.  I don’t remember the first one.  It was probably snowing.  The early years are a blur, but I do recall sitting around the large, otherwise unused dining room table with the crisp, white holiday tablecloth which had been properly stored, washed and ironed for the occasion.  My mother’s special china, brought out for Thanksgiving and the High Holidays, was carefully laid out at each place.  My dad always sat at the head of the table and was served first.  Mom never seemed to sit down.  She was always jumping up to respond to dad’s commands.  She ate while preparing the meal and snacked her way through our dinner.  The menu was a blend of old world and new – the traditional turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie was served alongside beef brisket, matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish and kugel. Everything was kosher. The early holidays were special in that all five of us were together –my parents, me, my brother Marty and sister Ruby.  In later years my sister brought her new husband, but my brother was a no-show after 1951, once he left for college and then his life beyond, dealmaking in New York City.   Thanksgiving holidays for me represent different parts of my life.  Early childhood, brother and sister at home, the years I returned for the holiday from college followed by marriage, and then returning to my childhood home with my late wife and our young children.  After my parents retired to Florida, our family Thanksgivings were on our own in East Hampton. 

                Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that is fixed in the calendar, always the fourth Thursday of November.  These holiday milestone markers remain the same, while the participants and locations change, dictated by where one sets down a home.  Looking back over 83 years of Thanksgivings, reflecting on memorable times with parents, siblings, loved ones past and children, I realize it is a holiday about looking to the past, not the future.  Unlike New Year’s celebrations when we look ahead, Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful for all we have and have had, and for simply sitting at a table to share a meal with those close to us — being in the room where it happens, so to speak.  I look forward to this year’s Thanksgiving, despite the fact that we are not all at the table.  Each Thanksgiving is a short, shining moment in life’s story – enjoy it while you can. 

“Billy – yu wanna go fishin’?”

…I texted my grandson.  I am always asking him, but never get the response I want.   I would like Billy to come down to Florida by himself, for some freshwater fishing on a river I discovered off Jupiter inlet.  During the summers, I have coaxed him to fish with me in Maine at our camp, but only if his father or mother were in the canoe with him.   I can understand that at age 12 he may be too young to travel by himself from New York to Florida or Maine, but I keep asking and hoping for at least a “maybe.”   Instead, I get a definitive “no.”  I know Billy enjoys our Maine excursions with Andy our fishing guide.  Andy always puts Billy into small mouth bass (that’s fisherman talk) and in fact, Billy boasts to friends and family about how much he catches.  Last summer with his mom, he caught more fish than I did.  But my dream of having my grandson fish and hike in the woods with me, just the two of us, won’t be a reality until Billy is a little older. 

In the past, my girls would not want to go on my fishing trips, whether in the U.S. or abroad. Even the promise of international travel was not enough to tempt them.  They were teenagers, more comfortable at home with their mother and their peers, none of whom were of learning how to flyfish.  I always imagined that someday I would have a grandson to accompany me, and that’s why I am a little impatient waiting for Billy to grow up enough to wave goodbye to his parents and go along with Grandpa’s plans.  I know he will eventually – Billy is a terrific, adventuresome kid.  Of late, I suspect there may be another factor making him hesitant about leaving home, even for a short time:  his sister is away at her first year of college.   Billy may be enjoying all the undivided attention from his mom and dad, and at the same time, may not want them to feel lonely without any of their children around.  I am no substitute for his parents, whom he adores. 

As a child I had no qualms about taking adventurous trips without my parents.  I joined my friends and their parents on trips to the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River and I attended Camp Seneca, which was sleepaway, every summer growing up.  I went to basketball games with my Uncle Sam, getting home long after dark, and went on weekend excursions to the farm of one of our neighbors.  I was always up for getting out of the house and being somewhat on my own at Billy’s age.  When I received an Indian Racer bicycle I was off every day after school, exploring. During the summers I was out on my bike from after breakfast until sundown.  Back then, being at home just wasn’t as entertaining as it is for kids these days with television and computers and video chatting with friends.  I didn’t even have books at home –I had to go to the library for those and read them there, my bike parked outside.    When Billy hits his teen years, I won’t take “no” for an answer.  And my wifi is working just fine for video games, computer, all of it–AFTER we get back from a day on the lake. 

“Keep the Thorn to Keep the Rose”

My smart watch showed “snow showers in Danforth.”  It is the time of year when Greg and Katie scramble to open the storage garage and sort out where all the “stuff” accumulated over the summer and summers before will be stacked away for the next year’s adventures.  This year not only do we need a bed for the canoe and my old power boat, but I recently shipped up to camp my complete library of books accumulated since the mid-1970s. Greg is to build, over the winter, a new set of shelves to house my beloved, mostly-read books in my man cave-office-studio.  I always feel comforted surrounded by books, as I am by the small fireplace in the studio.  Next spring, I will organize the books, and figure out where my fly-tying apparatus goes, as well as my painting easel and other assorted tchotchkes. But now things are winding down.  The closing up of camp in the fall coincides with my birthday in October and is always a time of reflection for me.

A recent article in the New York Times, “Fall Can Be a Season for Building Resilience” by Erick Vance, describes the melancholy one feels at the loss of sunlight and greenery at the end of summer.  Yet those who “lean in” to the discomfort can gain from it, as it enables them to build up a tolerance to other fears and uncertainties in life. “Mindfulness” is another way to simply observe and accept life as it is rather than thinking about change as a source of distress.  Useful advice, as this autumn is a bit scarier than most given what is happening in the world:  important mid-term elections at a time when our democratic system is at risk, an escalating war in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear confrontation, plus the economic turmoil of inflation—and we cannot forget about the damage caused by Hurricane Ian on the west coast of Florida.  It is getting harder for me to read and accept the front-page news.  I know I must keep abreast of what is happening in the world, but it is becoming burdensome.  I find the obituaries and wedding announcements more enjoyable than the current events being reported.  Personally, I am fortunate to be healthy, to have a life filled with adventure, love and career success.  Yet there is an unsettling feeling of uncontrollable events on the horizon.  My form of mindfulness is to delve into a good book to take me to another place. Mysteries, biography, classics, as well as a new project—research on a historical novel I plan to write about my father’s escape from Ukraine during the First World War in 1918, and his journey across Europe to Argentina and eventually to upstate New York. Now there was someone with resilience. 

Vance also talks about autumn as a time of year for “harvesting” memories, looking back and collecting the moments, good and bad, without judgment: “Keep the thorn to keep the rose.”  At my age, I have plenty of thorns, but even more roses, for which I am grateful.  The months ahead will be filled with various adventures and other ways to cope with the blues the changing seasons can bring, and of course my professional work is always a constant source of fresh challenges and excitement.  And camp opening in May is only eight months away. In the meantime, stay warm, Katie and Greg.

The Cygnet

I had a short stay at camp with my high school friends this past week, all of us class of 1958, Benjamin Franklin High School, Rochester, New York.  The camaraderie and closeness with the guys and the warmth of us all being around the fire pit, the shifting smoke notwithstanding, made for a strong sense of wellbeing.  We were together from early morning coffee to late night story sessions of times past and memories relived. But the good feeling, which I hoped would last, was overshadowed by a disappointing discovery on my return to New York.  My house is situated on a cove that is home to a longstanding flock of swans that have co-existed with us since the 1970s.  Before I left to go to Maine, I noticed a bevy of young cygnets trailing a mother and father in the water.   Now I found that the entire family had dwindled down to one lone cygnet survivor.  Sadly, the female swan was found floating in the water and there was no trace of the others, aside from the last offspring swimming alone in Jones Cove, fluttering about among the phragmites, looking for its family.  Coming off a trip with my oldest and dearest friends from upstate, the missing swans seemed a metaphor somehow, to those longstanding relationships we have, to illness and aging and the inevitable loss we face. The surviving cygnet represents our own children and the future. 

At camp, we focused on the past and its impact on our respective lives.  After a meal of comfort food and several glasses of Sancerre, the stories flowed like the wonderful wines my friends brought to camp.  A predominant theme was the importance of our mothers on our lives growing up.  Our fathers were the vegetable broker, the electrician, the garment worker and in my case the parking lot manager.  We all survived like my lone cove swan to create our legacies for the future.  As the swan matures, the brown cygnet colors dissolve into white and it will, like some of us humans, find a mate for life and reproduce.  Unlike the cove swans, whose domain is our pond, my friends and I have “cygnets” of our own, who are well into maturity with established families and careers. They include entrepreneurs, a travel consultant, a teacher of autistic children, an attorney, and a museum director. My daughter Kara is a jewelry designer and my daughter Brooke an interior decorator.  Our children have “spread their wings and flown” and we are proud of them. The sole cygnet will, hopefully, fly out of the cove to thrive with a new flock on the pond.  

To my buddies, Harv, Arnie, Jer and Bobbie and their beautiful gals, thank you for coming together at camp this past week.  Enjoy the upcoming season as if it were that last break after graduation, before we started our new lives in the fall of 1958.   

The Cemetery

I haven’t made my usual cemetery visit to upstate in several years due to Covid. Now there is no longer an excuse not to pay my respects to my folks, as my mother educated me to do as a youngster by having me drive her to the cemetery once I earned my driver’s license at age 17, to visit her mother, Lena Ressel, at the cemetery on Britton Road.  A few weeks ago, I had some time in my schedule, so I decided to make the trip to Rochester.  

On the morning planned for the cemetery visit, the weather was appropriate –rain.  I parked outside the grounds and searched along the residential street for some stones to place on the headstone, as an act of remembrance and as evidence to all those who succeeded me that I was a good son.  Once inside the cemetery grounds, I was surprised how long it took my to find my parents.  The grass surrounding the graves was wet and my shoes were soggy before I saw “Ackerman” in the middle row of plots.  After paying respect to my mother and father, I looked for relatives of my father, in an area of the cemetery called Kupel Volochisk, after the village in eastern Ukraine from which the people, long since laid to rest there, once emigrated during their lifetimes.  My father’s parents perished in the Holocaust so there was no individual headstone for Hershel and Ida Ackerman.   When I visited in 2019 with my daughter Brooke and granddaughter Lilly, we found a monument in the center the Kupel Volochisk section, honoring those from the village who died in the Holocaust.  I added a stone to the several atop the monument. Not much had changed since my youth, except there were more graves crammed in the old cemetery of past congregants of the Koppel Shul on Joseph Avenue. 

Afterward, the next stopover of course, was Don and Bob’s, the original hamburger stand on Lake Ontario, where I had spent a good number of evenings dining out in my youth. I found my way from Britton Road over the Stillson Bridge to Beach Road and Don’s stand.  I had prepared myself with an antacid, so I was ready to indulge.  I savored the one-pound ground round with everything.  Reading the New York Times at the counter, I recalled memories of the 1950s in the northern part of Rochester and felt a little sad.  The neighborhood was once a thriving mecca for families with fish and kosher meat stands, bakeries and the like.  Now the area is in decline, with project houses and abandoned buildings.  Little remains except for a few churches and my old synagogue in form only.  The life of the city as the occupants of the Kupel cemetery knew it, like them, is gone.  Only monuments remain for those who are still here to visit and remember our loved ones who have passed on.  

Camp with the Kids

Lenny Ackerman

My adult children and grandson were waiting for me curbside at Bangor Airport.  They had all arranged to gather at LaGuardia to fly up together for their exclusive week with Dad at camp. My son-in-law Peter was on his cell catching up with business as my daughters waved me over.  After quick hugs and hellos, everyone piled in the Bronco, anxious to get to camp–but not before our planned stop for lunch at Governors, a family restaurant which is part of a chain exclusive to Maine. 

                A family week together at camp has become an annual event for the past several years. When we are all under one roof again it is immediately like old times, though we have had our separate homes for years now.  Shared meals and campfire stories of times past and plans for times to come reconnect us and deepen bonds. 

                I planned to take everyone to Sucker Lake for fishing and a cookout.  Kara and Peter opted out for yoga and conference calls.  Brooke and Billy drove with me in the Bronco over the snowmobile path to the entrance of the lake area.  A bumpy ride but the Bronco handled it as advertised.  Greg met us there with a portable battery-operated motor for the rowboat moored at the shore.  The motor was silent so the quiet of the lake was maintained as we traveled the short distance to a small island for a barbeque.  Greg started his campfire while I waded into the water for a few casts.  Billy tried his hand at wading and casting alongside me and I noticed he was more confident in his technique this year.

                Lunch was a typical Lenny picnic menu:  hamburgers with mustard and relish.  The appetizers and dessert were catching a bass, so after a few bites I rushed everyone into the rowboat to find a spot where the fish were waiting for us. 

                We maneuvered over to promising-looking cove and before long Brooke and Billy caught several mid-size fish.  Dad landed a few but the exercise was to have the kids experience the lake and its surroundings.  There were no camps along the lake shore, no signs of anyone else.  Just pure wilderness.  Truly a heavenly place.