Thursday 21 September 2023


 The ospreys are gone. They left in the weeks after Labor Day. 

When they get the call – genetic or atmospheric - they don’t delay, it’s a long way to Central America.

The male goes first, soon after the female follows, sometimes accompanied by her grown chicks, although the young ospreys seem to know the route and destination regardless.

Ospreys mate for life but they travel separately. The male arrives in Connecticut coastal areas soon after St. Patrick’s Day.

Having secured last year’s nest, he will fish just enough for personal sustenance. Mamma will arrive in a week or so, and dictate just how she wants the nest to look and feel; she doesn’t hesitate to discard any twig or other building material the male may offer, if not to her liking.

After mating she will take to the nest and lay up to 3 eggs. Poppa’s hard slog then begins. He must feed her, and himself, and as soon as the eggs are hatched, he is the main provider for roughly 50 days until the young can hunt successfully.

July and August are a treat for those who pay close attention. Where once the male dived alone, now the full family of 5 (if they’ve survived predators or illness) display their skills, swooping down on unsuspecting fish.

The first days of hunting for the young provide moments of hilarity, as a swift, seemingly confident dive may lead to an ungainly belly flop. But they learn quickly, out on the placid Long Island Sound.

There’s a clock ticking down to Labor Day. The young have a flight of thousands of miles ahead. Do they have any notion of this, or is it something genetic that drives them on to their winter home in Central America.

I’ve been watching ospreys for some time. I began soon after 9/11 – I guess that event caused many people to take stock of their surroundings. At first, sightings were rare, but around 2015 - the first summer after Black 47 disbanded - I noticed a jump in their numbers.

I was working on a novel then and making slow progress. Novels are hard to write and the work is draining. I began rising at 6am, and took solace in looking up from my laptop every few minutes for sight of the male as he circled the bay, pausing as hawks do in mid-air to scan the waters below.

I began to synchronize with him. If he dove and succeeded in clawing a fish, then I’d get a rush of adrenalin and finish a difficult sentence or paragraph. He failed often that first month, as did I. But as the summer wore on we both improved.

It took 3 summers of synchronizing with the male before I finished Rockaway Blue.

He returned the following spring in those first awful weeks of the pandemic. He seemed unfazed by all our fears and paranoia.

I wouldn’t say ospreys are methodical, they’re far too skillful and opportunistic, but there was work to be done, and my old friend set about it in his usual driven manner.

I followed his example, as best I could, and began All The Rage, a musical about the Rock ‘n’ Roll life in the East Village, the score of which I finally recorded last week.

I’m pretty sure he didn’t make it back this year, the male who now rules the roost in these waters has stripes on his belly, whereas my co-worker’s under-plumage was white as snow.

I mourned him for a while, but then rationalized that the new male is the son of my old friend, and life must go on.

I had been saving a project called Rebel Girl for the return of the ospreys in late March. It’s the story of the firebrand labor activist, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She was from The Bronx and gave her first public speech for workers rights when she was 15.

So, when mourning was over, I dove in. Stripe Belly has more energy than my old friend. I hadn’t noticed that he’d gotten slower with age.

Anyway, my young associate suits the drama and drive of Ms. Flynn, the songs and story already have an odd vibrancy. Hopefully, I’ll have the project ready for the long final polishing by the time my new friend returns in the spring.

Wednesday 6 September 2023


I often take a train to New Haven nowadays, and since I find trains very relaxing I invariably feel drowsy as we pull out of Grand Central Station.

Nonetheless, I always awaken as we chug by Woodlawn Cemetery. Miles Davis lies within and I fantasize that the “coolest man in the universe,” gently rouses me with a toot of his golden horn.

Truth be told though, I feel very at home around graveyards. And why wouldn’t I? My grandfather, Thomas Hughes, was a monumental sculptor.

He was a quiet man who had left school at 14 to be apprenticed to his father. When he was 18, Thomas left his native Carlow with a horse and car, a load of limestone, and drove the 50 miles to Wexford town where he set up shop.

Life was far from easy, but he married, raised a large family, and prospered. Some years after my grandmother died, I moved in “to keep him company.”

Parents would never part with their darlings nowadays, but Ireland was a different country back then.

I probably still have limestone dust in my lungs for I spent much time in his yard near Wexford Quay.

On Sunday afternoons, however, we usually took a leisurely drive through the countryside. We would always stop at a graveyard, and he would potter around until some statue or headstone caught his eye, and there he would stand riveted, for what seemed like hours.

It took many years before I realized that he was either figuring out how to create or improve on such a work. For he was an artist, though he had never taken a lesson. Whatever he knew he’d learned through observation and hands-on experience.

His allies were the traveling people who loved sumptuous memorials. He would stand in his draughty office surrounded by heartbroken families as they pored over pictures of ornate headstones and statues.

They always paid cash up front, but he willingly offered big discounts for the chance to carve something original.

When I was 15, I began working for him during summer vacations. Patron Days in cemeteries were held all through those weekends. Families wished their ancestral graves to be brought up-to-date and spruced to their best, with the names of recently deceased added, old headstones cleaned, and new ones erected.

My job was to mix cement, scour stones and kerbing, and make the tea. There was little rush, you could dream as you toiled; but most of all I loved the peace and quiet that came with the terrain.

I also loved my workmates. Tom Fortune was from “out the country,” while John Redmond was a townie from nearby Monck Street. Between them they had accrued much native wisdom, and when pushed would share it.

They were kind men who treated me as an adult, and I learned much from them about life, including how to maneuver a stick-shift truck. They were both at ease with the world and content with their occupation, for it saved them from the scourge of loneliness in emigrant London.

One memory still causes a chuckle. We were sent to erect a headstone in a small overgrown graveyard up near Gorey. The person who had ordered the job failed to show.

However, there was a fairly recently dug grave situated in the general area where we had been instructed to put up the headstone.

It was a routine job and we took our time, savoring the lovely August day. In the late afternoon we departed for home with the contented feeling of another job well done.

All hell, however, broke loose the following morning for we had raised the headstone over the wrong grave, and to add insult to injury there had been bad blood of long standing between the two aggrieved families.

We rushed back out into a local cold war, and with much difficulty dislodged the headstone and kerbing; we then cleaned up the ravaged grave area as best we could under the stony gaze of the offended family.

The sun was going down as we erected the headstone over the proper grave, amid the muttered taunts and criticisms of the other hostile clan.

It made for a long, difficult day, but such is life, death, and bad blood in a country graveyard. We could have used a couple of soothing toots from Miles Davis’s golden horn.