Jaime Franchi is the Executive Editor of Morey Publishing. She covers education and contributes news and entertainment pieces for the Long Island Press, along with occasional op-eds when she's in the mood for some hate mail. Her work can also be found on Salon.com, Milieu Magazine, Huffington Post and The New York Times.
Climate change, even though it’s a complete hoax, has so messed with our weather patterns on Long Island that the calendar no longer dictates the temperatures we’ve come to associate with our seasons.
Case in point, the first day of December was a moderate 50 degrees. The sun shined. Birds chirped. Light sweaters sufficed for cover. A day earlier, the bitter freezing, driving rain caused Canadian geese to migrate northward to escape the cold. Nothing is what it has ever been–or ever will be again.
In short, it’s getting weird.
The calendar no longer suffices when it comes to predicting the weather. The weather forecasters seldom seem to get it right. How do you know when it’s time to break out the winter coats, dust off the UGGs you preemptively brought out in the first week of October because drinking pumpkin-spiced lattes in flip flops just seemed wrong, and resign yourself to the reality of an unavoidably brutal New York winter?
Why, you follow the flight of the snowbirds, of course.
Snowbirds, unlike the newly-coined invective “snowflake,” is northeastern slang for those who move from New York to Florida in the wintertime. There is no set date for this migration. It just happens.
You notice by the increasing traffic surrounding LaGuardia and JFK airports. The lobbies fill with smart blue-and white-haired folk who have put in their time enduring biting air that hurts your face, the indignity of trying-and failing-to keep balance while walking across parking lots made treacherous with black ice, and suffered countless flat tires on Long Island’s many, many, many potholes. (So many. But don’t worry. Road construction crews will repair the roads come spring time. During rush hour. At your expense. You’re welcome.)
That’s right, those who have paid their LI winter dues will head southbound to the land of sun, sand and white pants in winter. How do they know exactly when to shuffle off this frigid coil and head down? Well, no one knows exactly.
Scientists could study it, but who would listen? All we know is that like canaries in the coal mines, when you see airports teeming with grandparents and moving trucks heading from New York to the sunshine state, winter is nigh.
Virtually everyone on Long Island knows Valley Stream-born comedian Jim Breuer.
We know SNL Breuer: Goat Boy and spot-on Pesci impressions. We know Half Baked Breuer, from the 1998 hit comedy he co-starred in with Dave Chappelle. We know radio and podcast Breuer. We know Breuer from VH1’s That Metal Show. We know Mets fan Breuer. Of course, we know stand-up Breuer.
And if you know Breuer, you know he is a diehard 1980s heavy metal superfan: Judas Priest, AC/DC, Metallica. His renowned impersonations of the bandleaders are born from hero worship, a true love of the craft, and pure, unmitigated joy.
On Saturday night at Mulcahy’s Pub and Concert Hall in Wantagh, Long Island got to meet a Breuer they’ve never seen before—Rock Breuer—and he absolutely killed.
Breuer wasn’t feeling well, but the audience would never know it, as he busted out onstage with raging riff-heavy guitars, explosive drums and very, very loud, shrieking metal vocals. He and his band “The Loud & Rowdy” lived up to their name, in spades—melding the worlds of sheer comedic hilarity and glorious, no-frills metal-mania chaos. On this Long Island stage, Breuer played out his ’80s metal fantasy that wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention.
The real surprise? He’s good. Like, really, really good.
Jim Breuer is a legit rock star.
Breuer doesn’t rely on laughs or mere enthusiasm, but actual talent as a rock singer. His voice carries with it a James Hetfield-tinged raw grittiness. His stage presence is magnetic. His album Songs from the Garage was produced by Rob Caggiano—former lead guitarist for thrash metal warlords Anthrax—who also plays guitar in Breuer’s backing band The Loud & Rowdy, along with bassist Joe Vigliotti and drummer Mike Tichy. The musical offering is an ode to the parent in all of us: past the age of 40, having given over our lives to the little people we made, plus soccer practice, music lessons, school lunches. It’s all about them now, not us. But there’s a small piece of us still inside, that teenager who geeked out over something creative, something that spoke to us on a complete individual level, but connected us through space and time to others.
For Breuer, that was metal. It was his own personal calling, yet it bonded him with every black-leather-jacket-and-Slayer T-shirt-wearing kid in his cafeteria. His “garage” is where he lets that kid come out and play, in family-friendly songs that are as funny as they are impressively real.
Breuer opened with the riff-heavy “Thrash,” a song about losing your ever-lovin’ mind whenever you get the house to yourself. Loud, with killer hooks, this song let the audience know he wasn’t playing a rock star, he actually was one.
“Can you handle three minutes of metal?” he bellowed out into the crowd.
Yes, we could—evident in the resounding roar of the packed club in response.
In between songs, Breuer interjected stories about his life: kids, coming up in Valley Stream, seeing shows at Nassau Coliseum and in Franklin Square. He entertained the audience with a story of getting to ride in Ozzy Osbourne’s private jet to the MTV Icon awards, and being star-struck enough to shove Ozzy’s shrimp into his pockets.
Of course, he delighted the audience with a spot-on impression of Ozzy, zig-zagging toward the back of the place, his incomprehensible slurs disguised as words.
Breuer busted out impressions throughout the night: Metallica’s James Hetfield’s signature “Yee-ahh!”s punctuated his sentences, AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson’s wail pure perfection. (Johnson lends vocals to two tracks on Songs from the Garage.) Taking requests from the audience, Breuer initiated a heavy metal version of the children’s song “B-I-N-G-O,” as sung by legends Ozzie Osbourne, Brian Johnson, Hetfield and Kermit the Frog.
Each tune had a story, a personal bent, a memory of his early days, as in “Be a Dick 2Nite,” about that one friend we all have, living at home, not paying rent, who gets us into all kinds of trouble.
“I can’t wait to be that old guy on the beach with a metal detector,” he told us while introducing the song “Raising Teenage Girls.” “I made it. No pregnancies. No addictions. I made it. I’m getting skin cancer. I don’t care.”
Breuer, who has three, takes us through watching our teenage daughters dress up and go out to face the world. And by world, he means teenage boys.
“Tell me,” he sang. “What are you gonna wear?”
Judging by the resounding applause and cheers from the packed audience, everyone at Mulcahy’s could relate. For the entire Loud & Rowdy set, we were one—metal heads in the school cafeteria that somehow became over-40 parents, invited into Breuer’s garage—separate, but all in it together.
Jim Breuer is heavy metal hilariousness, personified. His unique collision of these two personal passions—comedy and metal—inspires fans to both head-bang and laugh, uncontrollably. He exudes an enthusiasm that is contagious, and up there on stage at Mulc’s with The Loud & Rowdy, his genuine talent was perhaps best embodied in his prolific, devastatingly accurate impression of Metallica frontman James Hetfield:
Main Art: Jim Breuer and The Loud & Rowdy shredded Mulcahy’s Pub and Concert Hall with heavy metal hilarity on Nov. 26, 2016. (Long Island Press / Jaime Franchi)
For more about Jim Breuer and The Loud & Rowdy, including future tour dates and videos, check out officialjimbreuer.com
My lack of interest in sports is fairly notorious around these parts.
First, because I work with a lot of men who enjoy talking about bats and balls and touchdowns and runs and team rivalries and other sportsy things in our office. I contribute nothing to these conversations except exaggerated yawns and eye-rolling. I understand that tons of women are into sports. They play them. Watch them. Follow them. Understand what is happening on screen when the TV announcers stop the clock and draw circles around the football players with arrows.
But I’m not one of them. So the fact that the Amazin’ Mets are about to play a wild card game—whatever that means—is lost on me.
The second thing that makes my non-fandom somewhat remarkable is that I am an award-winning sportswriter.
For this piece about NHL Hall-of-Famer Clark Gillies and for assisting with some quotes for this story about Mets superfan Jim Breuer.
So when my daughter’s cheer team was presented with the opportunity to perform at Citi Field at a Mets home game on Sept. 24 against the Philadelphia Phillies, I was excited for her, but not so much about the idea of watching a baseball game. I did like the idea of tailgating, however. I enjoy a 6-foot hero like the rest of America. And I loved that she and her team would have the chance to perform at such a tremendous venue in front of a ginormous audience and that she would feel the fresh green grass that famous baseball players (none of whom I can name without prompting) run through while she and her friends gaze up into the stands while they do their thing. Who gets to do that every day?
Let me be honest, they were fantastic! Taught by New York Jets cheerleaders, hundreds of elementary-age cheerleaders (and their coaches) took the field after hours of fun, but intense, practice. They completed a dance to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” and Meghan Trainor’s “Me Too.” In turn, each of the girls was broadcast from the Jumbotron. Exhilarated and excited, my daughter proclaimed that the experience was “the best thing that ever happened in my life—even more than Disney!” If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.
Then we stayed for the game.
I tried to make the best of it, and even contacted Press pal and Mets fanatic Jim Breuer to see if he’d be broadcasting his infamously hysterical viral post-game recap videos from the stands, and if so, whether I could join him, but he’s on tour and wasn’t in New York. He implored me to enjoy it. And to wear Mets gear. He let it be known that our friendship kind of hinged on this.
“You wear blue and orange to a Mets game,” he told me through the phone in the middle of an editorial meeting. “You get decked out in Mets gear! You love it!”
“Enjoy your daughter!” he advised.
With a borrowed Mets cap, I tried. But my attention span has a way of cutting out after approximately one minute. So, after chatting with the other parents seated in our section, looking at my phone, texting my husband and snapping pictures, I decided to walk around.
The thing about section 337, where we were seated, is that it requires you to take stairs to the third level, walk 50 feet, go down again, around half the stadium, then back up. And around. So I did that.
Then I looked at the scoreboard.
It was still the first inning.
The girls all performed again after the second inning. They stunted, jumped, clapped and cheered in unison to the thunderous roar of the crowd.
My daughter was escorted to our section, up the stairs, halfway around, down the stairs, then up again, and by this time, she was “literally starving.” The food lines were long, but I wasn’t interested in the game anyway. Off I went.
On the concession line, I learned not only the score of the game and what inning it was, but just how intensely some sports fans take the performance of the players. The Mets’ rough start on the field that day was downright insulting to a lady wearing a black Jurassic Park sweatshirt who was waiting on line for chicken fingers. And she was taking it all very, very personally.
Her boyfriend and I got an earful.
“It’s ten to nothing,” she said, hands on hips, her eyeballs digging deep into the soul of her date, undoubtedly looking for him to answer for her disappointment. “Ten. Ten to zip. Nothing. Nuh. Thing. To ten. I am so sad right now. I’m like really pissed.”
She really was.
“Seriously,” she continued. “The score? Is ten to nothing. Seriously. This is the night I come to a game. This is the night. I am not happy right now.”
Her boyfriend nodded silently. He was wearing a T-shirt that read: “I’ve got 99 problems.”
The line inched forward. The lady paced. She cut in front of a guy holding four beers and a box of hot dogs, causing him to stop short, spill some beer and get mustard on his Mets jersey. He regained his balance and moved forward. Some Mets fans are really resilient.
Every time this Jurassic Park lady came back from peering at the field, she repeated the score. Which was 10. To. Zero. The boyfriend had no answer for this, but he looked increasingly guilty as the game oozed slowly forward like thick molasses.
She caught the attention of two guys in their 20s fully decked out in Mets gear standing behind me.
“What?! They’re down by ten?! It’s the fourth inning! We’re better than this!” she proclaimed.
That’s a thing that trips me up. Not to sound like Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale, but how exactly do fans consider themselves a collective “we”? As in: “We won!” “We beat the Patriots!” “We are the champions, my friend!”
I had spent a small fortune on tickets and parking, but I didn’t feel as if the Mets players and I were all in this together.
I’d moved six inches in line. Now the 10-0 lady started leading the chicken-finger line in a “Let’s Go Mets!” chant.
Eventually, I saw the Promised Land, disguised as an overworked woman taking the orders of the people right in front of me. Apparently, the boyfriend had lost his appetite.
“Are you serious right now?” Jurassic Park lady said. “We’ve been on this line for an hour and a half, and now you don’t want food? I will f–king body-slam you right now. Get a f–king pretzel.”
He did as he was told.
I finally got an order of chicken fingers, but now I can’t pay my mortgage.
It was the sixth inning by the time I returned to section 337. The Mets were batting. Everybody started cheering like crazy so I looked on the field and saw that the bases were loaded and a guy had just scored.
Then another guy hit the ball and the guy in the field didn’t catch it, so another player ran home. That happened two more times and the people in the stands were going absolutely bananas. It was impossible to feel nothing.
In all of the excitement, I clapped. I yelled “Whooo!” from section 337.
Eventually, there were three outs. The Mets had scored four runs. The crowd was electrified. My heart felt happy for the Jurassic Park lady. I imagined she was eating her chicken fingers with a renewed gusto (and most likely her boyfriend’s pretzel as well).
And then we left early to beat the traffic. I never found out if the Mets won or lost. I still don’t know.
Good game, anyway, sports fans. Good game. And a truly Amazin’ time with my daughter.
The Beacon Theater in Manhattan will feature a star-studded show featuring Eddie Vedder, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, Marc Cohn and Vy Higginsen’s Gospel Choir in Harlem. In Los Angeles, former Eagles guitarist Don Felder, Ryan Cabrera, Sam Harris of X Ambassadors and the Gay Men’s Chorus of LA will perform at the rooftop of the Standard Hotel. And on Long Island, there will be a concert co-sponsored by WCWP Radio and Word of Mouth Productions at Hillwood Recital Hall at LIU Post in Greenvale.
This nationwide concerted action was set in motion by Donna Dees, a New Yorker who had organized the Million Mom March in Washington, D.C., on Mother’s Day in 2000 following a shooting in Granada Hills, Calif. the year before at a community center. That march drew more than 750,000 people on the National Mall, along with coordinating protests in all 50 states.
Dees was prompted to take action again after Mayci Breaux, 21, and Jillian Johnson, 33, were shot watching Amy Schumer’s film Trainwreck at a movie theater in Lafayette, La., on July 23, 2015. A month later, TV news reporters Alison Parker, 24, and Adam Ward, 27, were gunned down in Roanoke, Va.
The shootings in Lafayette and Roanoke had a very personal connection to Dees. Lafayette was where she got her start as a young television reporter. To have two women shot in the back in that town while they were watching a film that Dees and her girlfriends and daughter were all planning to see together, along with the brutal shooting a month later of two young television reporters in Virginia, upset her to the core.
“My experience with these shootings is that people get outraged for a certain period of time, and the gun lobby just waits for their outrage to go away,” she explained. “Or the elected officials who don’t want to do anything just wait for the outrage to subside.”
Dees was inspired to write a piece for the Daily Beast that she called “How to Organize the Mother of All Protests,” which described in detail the steps she had taken to organize the Mother’s Day march in 2000. She proposed using social media—something unavailable back then—to launch a protest much larger than the first one, ideally culminating in a nationally televised fundraising event in D.C.’s Verizon Center. The cost, she wrote, would be about $3 million.
“Got $3 million burning a hole in your pocket? Call me. I’ll reserve the venue,” she wrote.
Alas, no one came forward with a generous check. But John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence in Boston, was very intrigued. He had prompted Massachusetts to enact comprehensive gun laws and impose tough consumer protection regulations for firearms. As a result, today Massachusetts is one of the top three states in the country with the lowest firearm fatality rate. After reading the Daily Beast piece, he contacted Dees.
“We can do this,” he told her. A friend of Jackson Browne, he spearheaded the concert, and, with support from Faith United to Prevent Gun Violence, helped put the protest together on a national level. Slowly, they began to help organize coordinated events to take place across the country on Sept. 25, which Congress has designated the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims.
“It was a fortuitous coincidence that the next day is the first presidential debate,” Dees told the Press. “Our immediate goal is to make sure the moderator of that debate, Lester Holt of NBC News, asks our candidates intelligent questions. We expect the media to be educated that the guns in states with strong gun laws come from other states. They come from Indiana and other places with weak laws… We need laws at the federal level, at the national level.”
Adam Schanke, organizer of the Long Island event at LIU Post, is a bass player in The Circuit, a Brooklyn-based psychedelic band. The Circuit, along with Sugar and Spice Band, David Bennett Cohen and Mirage Project are donating their time, energy and talents to raise funds for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
“We want to show a sign of unity,” Schanke told the Press. “We want to show that we’re in support of rational thought.”
Schanke, 51, has never taken part in a protest against gun violence before, yet after the shooting deaths of five police officers in Dallas, Texas, this July, he needed to do something. When he heard about The Concert Across America to Stop Gun Violence, he knew he had to get involved.
“I thought it was a good—no, it’s not even a good idea—it’s a necessary idea,” he said. “It’s necessary to have this in the forefront in an election year. It’s remarkable how dug in Congress is, and how much they’re backed by the NRA. There really doesn’t seem to be any real movement [on the issue].”
The event’s organizers hope to raise awareness nationwide about the issue, and how common sense reform can help cure America’s epidemic of gun violence.
On the federal level there are bills in the House and Senate that address universal background checks, both in private and commercial sales, as well as closing “The Terror Gap,” which entails expanding background checks to prevent those on the terrorist watch list who cannot board a plane from purchasing firearms. Legislation would also impose an assault weapons ban stronger than the one that expired in 2004. A bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) would make gun trafficking a felony. At the moment, it’s a misdemeanor.
“So you get the same penalty for trafficking guns as you would if you were trafficking a chicken,” said Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. “So that needs to change.”
On its website, NYAGV has compiled a list of state representatives with a grading policy on how each politician rates on the gun issue. Their goal in this election is to educate voters on where their representatives stand and back candidates who not only support gun safety legislation, but actively work toward enacting it.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the state’s senior senator, has been an outspoken advocate for common sense gun reform laws. In his signature brash style, he threw his full support behind The Concert Across America to End Gun Violence.
“We have to right the wrongs in our background check system that let bad people plan and carry out despicable attacks,” he said in a press release. “Right now, a nefarious individual—someone suspected of planning a terrorist attack, tracked by the FBI, and on the terrorist watch list—can legally purchase a gun at a licensed dealer; this makes no sense! And, right now a person can walk into a gun show—and even if that person has a history of mental illness or a felony on their record—he or she can be legally sold a gun without any background check at all; this makes no sense!”
“The overall arching policy goal is that we demand from our elected officials universal background checks on every gun sold in America,” Dees told the Press. “We do not have that now. There are so many loopholes in the laws and they need to be closed up.”
Schanke is looking forward to performing at LIU Post. He believes this election is a tipping point in the gun violence prevention conversation and a call for action.
“You would think there would even be a knee-jerk reaction, and there just never is,” he says about politicians who stall gun legislation. “They offer their prayers and we wait for the next shooting.”
And that’s what this concerted action is hoping to end.
If you ask me, the word “warrior” gets thrown around a little too casually these days. This isn’t Sparta. We don’t wear armor or battle with swords. These are mostly corporate folks, after all, running in their spare time. Athletes, certainly. But warriors? Let’s just say I had my doubts, right up until I pulled into the parking lot that now houses a brand new Aldi’s on Middle Country Road, where runners crowded around a light pole marked with a Selden Hills sticker, their starting point for the most treacherous running course on Long Island.
Behind my sticker-less minivan, athletes decked out in matching red gear stretched their limber bodies, readying themselves to tackle the nefarious “Hills of the Seven Sisters,” the steep mounds that mark the tough terrain of this 10k course, known to these runners as “The Seven Beasts.”
“These are serious runners,” I texted my friend Mike “Chicken” Butitta, a runner whose boundless energy and enthusiasm for every single thing in the world, especially these hills, piqued my curiosity back when my running sneakers were safely in my closet, collecting dust. “I’m not getting out of my car. Let’s go to IHOP instead.”
Chicken has been a Hillbilly (as they call themselves) since October 2013. At first, he ran to take off excess weight and to get in better shape. He runs local races with his wife (and my friend) Kelli, setting achievable goals and then smashing them. But something about the Hills calls to him. Later I found out what.
Alas, that Sunday morning, Chicken didn’t have his phone with him, and would not receive my text until long after I’d finished the 6.2 mile run and was icing my sore knees on my couch at home. That turned out to be a good thing, because as delicious as Nutella pancakes are, had I turned away from the Selden Hills running group that morning, I would have missed out on a life-changing experience with some of the most incredible people living right here on Long Island.
“I love all the inspirational stories that people on the Hills have and I love that so many are just nice,” he texted me later when he had his phone. “Some of the best people I’ve met anywhere. They are so supportive at races or anywhere you run into a fellow Hillbilly.”
Lou LaFleur, director and organizer of the Selden Hills Warriors, doesn’t have a long history of running. In fact, it wasn’t until 1999 when he was 43 years old and saw a sign for the Shelter Island 5k hanging in the post office where he worked as a federal agent that he decided to try it out. It was a tough race, but he was hooked. He currently competes in approximately 50 races per year and serves on the board of directors for the Greater Long Island Running Club (GLIRC).
By 2010, LaFleur was looking to increase his times with varied training: track work, some tempo runs, long runs. He’d read in Runner’s World that running on hills provides a complete training. The only problem? We live on a flat island.
Or do we?
The “Hills of the Seven Sisters” are located in a residential area in Selden and Farmingville, along the Ronkonkoma Moraine, just west of Bald Hill. Created by glaciers 20,000 years ago, they decorate the landscape on the mountain-named streets of Berkshire and Adirondack. The highest of them reaches a mighty 334 feet in elevation–a stunning and intimidating sight, especially for a newbie runner.
LaFleur’s group is not the first to tackle the hills on foot. Looking for a hilly run to complete his training, LaFleur noticed a small write-up about the Selden Hills in the back of the GLIRC magazine, Footnotes. Mike Polansky, GLIRC president, was about to pull the listing because no one ran the course anymore. LaFleur called the phone number listed and reached Richie Hollmann, an 85-year-old retired Grumman worker who used to run the Hills regularly back in the 1980s. He asked Hollmann if he would email him the map of the 10k course.
Hollmann laughed: He doesn’t email. Instead, he invited LaFleur to his house in Ronkonkoma, where he provided a rudimentary map of the route he and his fellow Grumman workers would take every Wednesday afternoon at 4:30, before ending up at a local pizzeria. LaFleur was ready to follow in his footsteps.
On June 30, 2010, LaFleur drove to the course with his wife Nancy.
“You’re not going to do this right?” she implored him.
But that Wednesday at 4 o’clock, LaFleur set out with his running partner Maryann Harkins. It was a hot and humid afternoon, but they finished it. That year they ran the Hills together “maybe a dozen, two dozen” times, according to LaFleur. Then they got a call from a woman named Joann Styles, who saw the revised listing in Footnotes and wanted to join them. A handful of others came along in February 2011, including Rick Secor, who achieved Selden Hills legendary status by running 409 miles on the Hills in one month, after recovering from an injury so severe that his foot nearly “fell off.”
After a year or so, LaFleur began to spread the word to runners he met at local races about this amazing run he’d rediscovered. One such runner was KC Brett.
“Why don’t you come down?” LaFleur badgered him repeatedly. “You live over there.”
Brett lives in Port Jefferson Station. He’d been active on his high school track team, but like LaFleur, hadn’t laced up his running shoes in almost 30 years until the running bug bit him later in life after he’d run a 5k race with his daughter.
LaFleur accumulated a core of approximately 15 people who ran the Hills every Wednesday at 4:30. At some point in 2011 or 2012, they came up with the idea of putting together an exclusive Hillbilly-only Facebook page. From there, the group started growing exponentially. Now there are more than 900 members.
And then they made shirts.
“It started off as a joke really,” Brett says. “Hey, we run together; let’s get shirts! Let’s do this.”
Across the back, the red singlets read: “It’s just a hill. Get over it,” with an elevation chart marking the Seven Sisters. You will see them at every major race on Long Island (and in marathons across the country). Many times, they dot the podiums, collecting medals.
The Warrior Difference
Long Island has tons of enclaves where athletes flourish. Running clubs abound, as well as any other club you can imagine. If you have an interest or a hobby here, chances are there are throngs of people who share it. But something about the self-proclaimed “Selden Hills Warriors” sets them apart, a combined set of attributes that has created a comradery that goes far beyond that of a typical running club.
Recently KC Brett and Lou LaFleur sat down for an interview at Roast Coffee in Patchogue, two lean runners donning their ubiquitous red shirts and speaking with an enthusiasm and an ease that reflected their passion, not just for their sport, but for the group itself.
Brett, one of Selden Hills’ premier runners (clocking 793.6 miles on the Hills so far this year), explained how it works.
“The dues are very simple: you run the course once, you’re in,” he says. “We don’t ask anything else from anyone. No membership fees.”
“In” means that you’ve earned a coveted Selden Hills Warrior sticker for your car and will be admitted into their closed Facebook group, which you cannot join until you’ve completed the course. Facebook is where you will find Warrior of the Week posts, as well as Warrior of the Month—the runner who racks up the most miles on the Hills for the month—and then, of course, Warrior of the Year.
LaFleur chooses the Warrior of the Week, who is then instructed to post something each day of the week. It is kicked off with an introductory “Saturday Spotlight,” where runners reveal their running history, some personal details, and how they came to the Hills. Some spotlights are more personal than others, revealing trials against cancer or injury, struggles with bulimia, or abuse. Others talk about a desire to get back in shape or to rediscover a lost athleticism, to keep up with their children, or to reclaim their bodies after pregnancy. The rest of the posts, such as Memory Mondays, Wonder Wednesdays, and Fun Fact Fridays run the gamut from light-hearted and funny to celebratory, proud, and often, profound. And they all foster a unique sense of intimacy and support within the more than 900-member group.
Another characteristic that sets the Selden Hills Warriors apart is that nobody gets left behind. I completed that entire 10k course with Chicken patiently keeping pace at my side the entire way because he never got my text about going to IHOP instead and just showed up to encourage me along. I clocked in at an hour and 20 minutes, long after most of the Hills regulars had finished. Yet, as I turned the corner into the parking lot, there they were to wave me in, to applaud my accomplishment, and to take my picture. They have been known to drive the course backwards, looking for struggling or injured runners. They will not leave until every last runner is accounted for.
“That’s a trademark of us,” says LaFleur. “We don’t leave anyone behind.”
A warrior’s code, indeed.
The third difference is that although the Selden Hills Warriors are comprised of some of the most talented runners on Long Island, no one is turned away.
“What people love about this group, and what makes it so special, is that everybody is there to support one another,” says Brett. “If you’re there to walk. If you run slow. If you’re there for your health. We’re there to support everybody.”
“There are tri-athletes in the group,” LaFleur explains. “There are walkers in the group. KC’s wife Mary started a walking group. We’re an inclusive group. We don’t exclude anyone based on pace or anything. You want to come down and join us? Just be respectful.”
Respect is something that marks the members of this group. It’s important that they respect the neighborhood and participate in cleanups along the course, clearing brush and picking up trash.
They even have their own language:
Hillbilly: a Selden Hills runner
Slaughterhouse: 15k course on the Hills
Vampire: early morning runners
Turtles: slow-paced runners
Meatgrinder: 20k course on the Hills
Scream Machine: 25k Course on the Hills (or as Nancy Walker Anderson calls it, “pure hell.”)
So, one day you might see a message like this pop up on the super-secret Facebook page: “Anyone up for a slaughterhouse for Vampire Wednesday?” Which means 15k at 5 a.m. A few weeks ago, I never could have imagined there were people who existed, let alone who live on the same fair isle as me, who would respond to such an idea in the affirmative.
Oh, but there are. Lots of them.
Beyond the Hills
If you attend any Long Island race, from 5ks to the Suffolk County Marathon, you will see the iconic red shirts amply represented. You can find Selden Hills Warriors at Bayport High School most Thursdays training on the track. Together, they compete in events such as Rob’s Run, a cross country trail race in Syosset every November. They do an annual Hills race called “Run for the Hill of it!” replete with awards by age group. You will find them on the Hills for their New Year’s Eve run.
The Selden Hills Warriors just celebrated their second Family Fun Day, where children were encouraged to participate in shorter runs. They started birthday runs, where the group dons birthday hats and sashes and runs the course in celebration of those whose birthdays fall within the month. Afterwards, LaFleur sets up a table with bagels and donuts—and bananas, traditional post-run food for the health-conscious.
Select Warriors also play beach volleyball together. Many gather in Patchogue to share beers and swap stories. They follow local bands, such as Tradewinds, which features Hills runner Jeanette Velsmid. They take trips to the wineries. They celebrate the Hills, their accomplishments, their friendship and the season at their annual holiday party, where many spouses finally meet the “Family.”
“People want this,” LaFleur says, lifting his cup of coffee at Roast. “They want to be a part of something. They want to belong to something.”
Friendliness is something that characterizes runners. Especially these runners.
“We leave our stress, our problems, out anxiety on the road,” Brett says. “So we’re pretty even-tempered people.”
The Finish Line
There are some personal revelations, inside jokes, good-natured teasing, and a ton of encouragement on the private Facebook group page. You should check it out. But, like that eponymous red sticker, you’ve got to earn it, first.
The sticker will brand you a Selden Hills Warrior. I now have one myself—having run the Hills four times that first month. As for the word “warrior,” I get it now. It is a battle. It is a war. But the demons we fight are ourselves, our slowest times, our fears, our lifelong inferiorities. The Vampires fight them in the moonlight; the rest of the Hillbillies do battle in the daytime. But every time they lace up, they face them again. The Hills become their own metaphors. An obstacle to climb. A demon. A challenge. An illness. A failed relationship.
All uphill battles, conquered together.
Main Art: Selden Hills Warriors celebrate one of the many times they’ve conquered the harrowing “Hills of the Seven Sisters” aka ” The Seven Beasts.” (Photo: Selden Hills Warriors super-secret Facebook profile page)
The air is thick with the rich scent of sausages and peppers and the hot grease of fried zeppoles.
Local musicians serenade a crowd of neighborhood families with ’50s and ’60s rock and roll and doo-wop standards, like “Duke of Earl” and “I Believe.” On the Ferris wheel, on the stoop of the church, and manning the booths selling hot calamari or festival games offering “A Prize For Everyone” are the residents of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
It’s a warm summer night. The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and San Paolino di Nola is in full swing.
Tomorrow, a handful of locals will lift the Giglio, an 82-foot, ornate, wooden, flower-laden steeple in a sacred parade that has marked the neighborhood since 1958. For the last three years, the honorary lifting of the Giglio has gone to Federico Castelluccio, best-known for his role as Furio on HBO’s acclaimed hit, The Sopanos.
On this Saturday night in mid-July, Castelluccio is in the basement of Our Lady of Mount Carmel church, along with Garden City writer/producer Michael Ricigliano, and cast members of the feature film The Brooklyn Banker, which premieres Aug. 5. They sign promotional posters, share a bag of zeppoles, and humor the flocks of Brooklyn women who have come to see Castelluccio in person, and, if they can work up enough courage, to ask to take a picture with him. He honors every request with that same smoldering smile that seduced Carmela Soprano.
“We shot from the rooftop to get the wide shots of the feast,” Castelluccio tells the Press, lips white with powdered sugar. “But we had to change the street signs because it was set in the ’70s.”
That detail, most likely to be overlooked by the average filmgoer, is just one of the marks of his thoughtful direction, designed to give an unmatched authenticity to every scene.
The Brooklyn Banker, the feature film written by Ricigliano, was expanded from the 2010 short film Lily of the Feast, starring and directed by Castelluccio. It also featured Paul Sorvino and John Bianco. The short went on to win top prizes at major film festivals, including Best Director/Short Film at the 2011 Long Island International Film Expo. The Brooklyn Banker retained Sorvino and Bianco for the cast, Castelluccio as director, and brought on the supremely talented Troy Garity (HBO’s Ballers) and David Proval, who played Richie Aprile in The Sopranos.
The feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was something Ricigliano needed to explore in order to unlock the doors to those stories—often tall tales—of a city that became part of his soul. Set in 1973, when the mean streets were ruled by the local mob, when computers didn’t make money laundering so difficult, and the landscape on 8th Street in Brooklyn wasn’t polluted with high-rise buildings with million-dollar apartments, The Brooklyn Banker is a gritty, powerful, evocative feature film with nuanced, standout performances, masterful direction, and a twist at the end that audiences will be thinking about long after the credits roll.
Garity plays Santo Bastucci, a banker with a photographic memory who is put in the difficult position of being asked to do a “favor” by the local mob boss Manny “The Hand,” played by David Proval. Garity’s portrayal of Santo is a layered performance that showcases the depth of his enormous talent. Santo is at once belligerent, thoughtful, tortured, and full of fierce resolve. His crisis of conscience is played with subtle nuances that carry the audience throughout his journey and make viewers feel his tension, fear, and the tremendous weight he’s shouldering.
This film is not only a “mob film,” but a study in the contrasts that make life and human beings complicated.
It’s easy to paint a picture in black and white with good guys versus bad guys, but life isn’t like that, and art, when it’s done as masterfully as this film is, presents a reflection of the contradictions that reside in all of us.
Benny (Paul Sorvino) is the dopey father-in-law (Or is he?) who is at once a sweet grandfather, belting out Opera to the delight of his two grandchildren (and consternation of his son-in-law), as well as an opportunistic thug, willing to put his son-in-law, and by extension, his own daughter and grandchildren, at serious risk in order to forward his own play for power.
In a similar fashion, Proval performs a touching, understated scene that reveals the tender side of his humanity as he starts to sing in Italian to his father, an old man with Alzheimer’s, who quietly begins to remember and sing back to him. It was juxtaposed with a brutal confrontation, in which, on Manny’s orders, a defenseless Latina woman is savagely beaten not only because she’d dared give lip to the mob boss, but because she represents a threat to the demographic of the old neighborhood. (The cultural shift is apparent on this steamy July day, as you peer down 8th Avenue in Williamsburg, now a veritable hipster haven.)
Castelluccio had originally played the role of Santo in the short film, but directing his first full-length feature film took up all of his creative energy. The role of Santo was difficult to cast, but once they came across Garity, there was no other choice for the starring role.
“When I saw Troy’s reel, I said, ‘Where did this guy come from?’” Castelluccio told the Press in a phone interview. “But it turns out I had seen him before, I just didn’t know it was him. That’s how brilliant this guy is, and I’m not blowing smoke up anyone’s butt.”
Ricigliano was equally thrilled that the core cast and production team he’d assembled to execute Lily of the Feast returned with enthusiasm to film the extended project.
“It’s been such a collaborative effort with our producers, like T.J. Sansone. Federico, Greg Lauritano, Craig Cohen, Ken Kelsh and myself made the short,” Ricigliano said. “From there we added Jeff Schneider, who’s my partner. Paul Sorvino was great. For him to do a short film because he was friends with Federico was great–and the fact that he liked it enough to come back was fantastic.”
“I feel, personally, that this is probably one of his best acting performances since Goodfellas,” Castelluccio said.
Sorvino’s close friendship with Castelluccio was formed over a mutual love and respect for art, among other things. Castelluccio is a fine artist. Sorvino is also a sculptor—which was the catalyst for Sorvino to consider his role in Lily of the Feast. Similarly, Castelluccio originally came onboard the project as a favor as well.
“This script came to me from Mike Ricigliano, who was introduced to me as an attorney who has a screenplay,” Castelluccio recalls. “You have certain ideas, like, okay, ‘This guy’s not a writer.’ But he’s a friend of a friend of mine, so I’ll give him the respect of reading the script.”
“And much to my surprise,” he laughs, “I thought it was incredibly well-written. Wow, this guy really can write!”
Ricigliano, 45, is an attorney by trade. The writing bug bit him five years ago when he tried his hand at screenwriting, and it never let go. After Lily of the Feast, he wrote “Queen for a Day,” an off-Broadway play directed by John Gould Rubin, hailed by critics as “intense,” “satisfying,” and “well-written.” Then came The Brooklyn Banker. And he’s not stopping there—he’s already hard at work on his next top-secret project.
Ricigliano’s enthusiastic spirit and love for the craft is readily apparent. In a way, this very personal project serves as a love letter, not only to the father who’d regaled him with stories of growing up in Brooklyn, but to a way of life so foreign to a suburban Long Island kid that it took on almost mystical qualities.
“My father told me bedtime stories about what it was like growing up in Brooklyn and about the feast, and what it was like growing up there and what it was like not having any money, where everything was bartering,” Ricigliano recalls. “Those are the stories that always stuck with me.”
As Ricigliano’s masterful cinematic recreations of those dream-like tales are so clearly testament, we’re so lucky (and exuberant) they did.
It’s my 40th birthday. Like any monumentally important milestone, it got me thinking about who I am and what I know, who I thought I’d be by now and who I actually am. What, I wonder, do I have to show for 40 years on this green earth?
But here’s the thing. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the older I got, the less I knew. I’m less sure about things I knew for certain when I was 30. At 20, life was a no-brainer: get a degree, marry the guy, get the job, have the kids. By 30, I had the kids and had no time to think about anything – but I could still tell you that breast beat bottle, that children shouldn’t watch too much television and that being a mom is the be-all and end-all of my life’s purpose.
And now, on the big day?
I’m glad that I breastfed my kids, but no longer have a strong opinion about what others do. My children have probably watched more TV than is acceptable by my compatriots in the mommy mafia.
And is being a mom fulfilling? Absolutely. But is it everything? Where do my kids end and I begin?
The answer is I don’t know. And the truth is that there are a lot of things I still don’t know. I have learned a thing or two here and there. I’ve learned not to have any heroes. Heroes often let you down. But that it’s okay because I’ve disappointed myself and I’m learning to forgive all of us.
I’ve learned that I don’t want to be a brand. I don’t want to be defined by the things I buy or the candidates I vote for. I don’t want to be locked into a belief system that is so rigid I can’t be open to learning new things.
Now the things I don’t know far outweigh what I’m sure of. Here are 39 of them. Maybe I’ll find the answers by my 50th.
What I Don’t Know by Age 40:
What I want to be when I grow up
How to keep it that way after I clean the house
How to meditate
How to save money
How to make meatloaf
The lyrics to “Yellow Ledbetter”
How not to cry when I’m angry
How to thicken my skin
How to achieve great eyebrows
How to be a wife, mother, employee and human being simultaneously
How to not order a second (or third) glass of wine
The difference between an alligator and a crocodile
Whether Pluto is considered a planet or not
How to do a cartwheel
How to not care what others think of me
Why women vote Republican
What happens when you die
How to fold a fitted sheet
How to wear a scarf
How to organize anything
How to achieve balance
Why I can’t just use the fancy towels
Why I need a pocketbook when I have pockets
The difference between foundation and concealer, and how to apply either
How to be in the moment
If ghosts are real
How to disagree amicably
How to be satisfied with what I have
How some people don’t drink coffee
Or don’t like chocolate
How to code (or what that really means)
How to do a headstand
If God is real
How Trump got this far
What happened at the end of the Sopranos
How to get through Joyce’s Ulysses
How to pronounce “quinoa,” “acai” and “manicotti.” I only want to eat the last one.
The vicious presidential primary season has led to an even harsher and uglier race for the White House. The natives have gotten restless and have turned on each other—Bernie supporter against Hillary supporter against Trump supporter.
National elections in this country are always malicious. They are always personal. It’s easy to forget how very nasty the 2008 primary season was when then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was running against then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and supporters of each candidate vowed to never support the other. Spoiler alert: They did. Hillary became part of President Obama’s cabinet as Secretary of State, and primary season was promptly forgotten, as the nation’s ADD was distracted by another news cycle’s feeding frenzy.
This is why I couldn’t get personally invested in this year’s presidential primary. As a Democrat, I support the party and the platform. Both U.S. Sen Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Hillary spoke to different issues that appealed to me. I back Bernie’s stance on income inequality. I stand behind Hillary’s role as a voice for women across the globe. Bernie’s populism represents the little guy who needs a voice. But Hillary refuses to speak out against Common Core, the failing nationalized public education system. Bernie lacks foreign policy expertise. Hillary voted for the Iraq war.
Nah, forget about it. I figured it was best I step back, let the chips fall where they may, and vote for whomever earns the Democratic nomination. It’s not worth fighting with my friends and neighbors over it. Besides, we have Trump supporters to condemn.
And then on Sunday, more than 100 people were shot, and 49 killed, in Orlando, Fla. And my priorities came into focus.
I am a one-issue voter. My issue is guns. My candidate is Hillary.
After 20 first graders were killed in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. four years ago, the attempt to keep firearms—particularly assault weapons—out of the hands of violent citizens became an issue that spoke to the core of who I am: a mother. Twenty mothers’ laps were empty that night, lacking the weight of a 6-year-old that I am intimately familiar with. It hurt. And it matters.
As Hillary stands to accept the nomination as the first woman ever to become the presidential candidate of a major political party in the United States, it occurs to me that in this context, Hillary is not just the best candidate despite being a woman, but because she is.
As a U.S. senator representing New York, Hillary co-sponsored the reauthorization of the assault weapons ban. She has been a consistent and unwavering supporter of gun violence prevention.
According to Donna Dees-Thomases, founder of the Million Mom March, which held its first pro-gun control rally on Mother’s Day in 2000, Hillary was a “major force behind the original Brady Bill,” which mandated federal background checks on those who purchased firearms in the United States and imposed a five-day waiting period on gun purchases.
Dees-Thomases is an unabashed Hillary backer today. Having spent time with Hillary during the lead up to the march, which ultimately drew 750,000 supporters in Washington, D.C., she had a close-up view of Hillary’s stance.
“She marched with the hundreds of thousands of mothers for the Million Mom March,” she said in an email. “We met with her when she was a U.S. senator. She listened and voted against giving immunity to the gun industry.”
Dees-Thomases believes that being a woman gives Hillary an advantage over the other candidates.
“Hillary is fearless, and has the fortitude to push through the reasonable regulations to keep dangerous weapons out of dangerous hands,” Dees-Thomases said. “And like most women, she is a multi-tasker. I am certain she can focus on improving the Brady background check and an assault weapons ban. At the same time.”
In response to the Orlando shooting, Hillary gave a speech in Cleveland on Monday that was heartfelt and direct. She presented clear ideas not only for how to address the scourge that gun violence has wrought on this country, but also how to “defeat ISIS and the other radical jihadist groups in the region and beyond.”
She didn’t mince words. She didn’t hedge. She stood up.
“The Orlando terrorist may be dead, but the virus that poisoned his mind remains very much alive,” Clinton said. “And we must attack it with clear eyes, steady hands, unwavering determination and pride in our country and our values.”
Her plan to defeat ISIS and other extremist groups included gaining ground against them in Syria and Iraq, and using coalition forces to prevent them from establishing more strongholds in Afghanistan, Libya and Europe, where terrorist attacks have become more prevalent, as the tragedies in Paris and Brussels have shown.
Yet, it will take more than that, she said.
“I believe weapons of war have no place on our streets,” Hillary said. “And we may have our disagreements about gun safety regulations, but we should all be able to agree on a few essential things. If the FBI is watching you for a suspected terrorist link, you shouldn’t be able to just go buy a gun with no questions asked.”
“And you shouldn’t be able to exploit loopholes and evade criminal background checks by buying online or at a gun show,” she continued. “And, yes, if you’re too dangerous to get on a plane, you are too dangerous to buy a gun in America.”
Common sense gun reform shouldn’t be the near-impossible achievement of a Congress that has a conscience. It should not be a third-rail topic of a presidential candidate. And it should never be an off-hand dismissive comment made by someone running for our highest office, such as when Donald Trump quipped in January that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?”
Ladd Everitt, a Merrick native and director of communications at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a national organization based in Washington, shared his personal views on Hillary’s candidacy recently with the Press, especially her stance toward the National Rifle Association.
“One really encouraging sign for people who care about gun violence prevention is how Hillary Clinton has made this issue such a priority in her presidential campaign,” he said. “Her heart is in this fight, but it’s also clear that calling for tougher gun laws is good politics in a rapidly changing America. Her calls to build a national movement to take down the NRA are exactly what we need in this moment. Bold, fearless, determined.”
Across the country, gun violence prevention advocates are pinning their hopes on Hillary.
“As a mother and a grandmother she has our backs,” said Dees-Thomases. “And when she takes on the gun lobby, we will have hers.”
She’ll have this mother’s vote.
Featured Photo: Hillary Clinton surrounded by family members of victim’s of gun violence during an event in Port Washington. Photo credit: Michael Davidson for Hillary for America/Flickr
The skies were blue Saturday, June 11, despite warnings of thunderstorms all week long. The sun was strong over the parking lot of Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, where we tailgated with cupcakes and juice boxes to celebrate my daughter Anna’s ninth birthday.
Between her gaggle of girlfriends from her cheer team and their moms, we were a group of 13, ready to witness the spectacle that is 106.1 WBLI Summer Jam.
The audience was rife with pre-teens, excited for the lineup that included Daya, Alessia Cara, ShawnHook, Nick Tangorra, Melanie Martinez, Rachel Platten, Troye Sivan, The Chainsmokers, Shaggy, Fifth Harmony, Iggy Azalea, Hailee Steinfeld, Charlie Puth and Megan Trainor. Because my kids have taken over the radio dial, I was familiar with more of these songs than I realized. When Rachel Platten belted out her popular “Fight Song,” an entire stadium of (mostly) girls and I sang right along with her. I knew all the lyrics to the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” too.
I might have been the grown-up, but I was cool.
About two hours into the show, menacing clouds soon moved in over the open-air amphitheater, and with almost no time to run for cover, lightning struck, thunder rumbled, and torrential rain poured down over the audience in the theater and those on the much-too-long lines for food.
The crowd screamed and streamed under awnings to wait out the storm, whose violent, ripping winds and torrential rains died down after approximately 20 minutes. People stormed the t-shirt vendors to buy dry clothes, even purchasing the shirts hanging on poles for display. My kid never got her BLI Summer Jam t-shirt. There were tears. Nine-year-old problems.
Then, after an hour delay, the show went on.
Hailee Steinfeld wowed the audience with her cover of Justin Bieber’s smash hit “Love Yourself.” Bringing Jamaican flair, Shaggy whipped the crowd into a screaming frenzy as the self-proclaimed Mr. Lover Lover sang snippets of songs “Boombastic” and ”It Wasn’t Me.” Charlie Puth slowed it down at the piano, and, choking back tears, dedicated his song “See You Again” to Christina Grimmie, the 22-year-old singer from The Voice who had been brutally shot and killed in Orlando as she was signing autographs the night before this concert.
“I never got to say what I wanted to say to her,” he announced, before launching into the ballad he had written for his best friend.
Iggy Azalea delivered the day’s stand-out performance. With boundless energy and flawless execution, her fast-moving lyrical and dance skills were on full display, singing her hits “Fancy” and “Black Widow.”
Fifth Harmony and Meghan Trainor also paid tribute to Grimmie. Neither performance disappointed, with Fifth Harmony’s super-girl group prancing and dancing about the stage in coordinated black leather outfits, singing their hits such as “Work from Home.” Meghan Trainor ended the lineup, serenading the audience with crowd-pleasers “All About the Bass” and “Lips Are Movin,’” along with her new song, “No,” from her new album Thank You.
As we made our way back to the parking lot well after midnight and got to our minivan covered in cupcake icing, my girl’s hand slipped into mine.
“Thank you,” she said, and it suddenly felt like it was my birthday present instead.
It’s early Monday morning. A driver is on his way to the East End where he’ll be stopping at several different farms for a variety of different products. One farm might have asparagus. One stop is the North Fork Chocolate Company. He’ll get North Fork potato chips. He’ll stop at Wickhams Fruit Farm and pick up beefsteak tomatoes.
Those tomatoes, harvested at peak ripeness just before he arrives, will be sliced into a salad that night, with fresh gourmet goat cheese along with Long Island littleneck clams hand-dug that very morning. This is a farmer’s market meal, bought and paid for online. It’s a new model, a modern way to eat the way we did hundreds of years ago.
The idea for OurHarvest, a 2-year-old online farmer’s market that procures reasonably priced fresh items from farms across Long Island, upstate New York and parts of New Jersey, and sells them at pop-up pick-up locations across the island, is the brainchild of Scott Reich, 32, and Michael Winik, 33. The two friends, who met at Wheatley High School in East Hills and were college roommates at the University of Pennsylvania, left the legal and financial world, respectively, to follow their childhood dream of opening business together. The roads that led them to OurHarvest were made of love, curiosity, an expanding understanding of the food cycle and a desire to contribute to the greater community.
“We never knew exactly what that might look like but we wanted to do something that we felt had a strong social mission that we felt could give back to society and improve the way we do something in a big way,” says Reich.
A self-described foodie, Winik sought to create a business that fed his passion for fresh, delicious, and interesting fare. Reich took a longer route. He grew up “eating Big Macs after soccer games,” but experienced an increasing awareness as he reached adulthood about the effects poor nutrition could have not only on his body, but on society. After the release of books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Fast Food Nation and documentaries like Food, Inc., the food cycle has come under scrutiny in a way that hadn’t interested the public since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle sparked reforms in the meatpacking industry a century ago.
In this age of increasing food awareness, Community Supported Agriculture and food co-ops have become popular with customers supporting individual farms by paying a subscription for their crops and picking up a box at prescribed times of harvested goods. These prepaid orders help the local farms run, and people have access to assortments of food items that are fresher than what’s sold at supermarkets. However, there are some unavoidable downsides, such as not knowing what the farm will produce from week to week, what can be an expensive commitment, and the limitations of having access to only what that farm can produce. They are also seasonal.
OurHarvest sought to answer for these downsides, while still supporting the local farm economy and providing access to fresh, healthy goods.
“What we tried to do was to harken back to the old days and the idea that the community can come together to create an experience where we all relate to one another,” Reich told the Press. “We’re all a part of a local, sustainable food system that is natural, doesn’t have any of the weird stuff that’s been concocted over the last hundred years to make food last longer or taste better or look different and so this is a very, we think, authentic and creative way to bring us back to a time that had existed for a very long time.”
Let’s go back to Monday morning. OurHarvest employs a few team members who take to the road running routes to different suppliers to pick up the product. Craig Hecht, a team member, for example, will make his way to the East End. Customers have placed their orders for specific items from a variety of different farms and paid for them in advance online. Customers choose their pick-up location—14 in Nassau and one in Suffolk—and a set time window. OurHarvest, having relationships directly with the suppliers, picks up the product and brings it back to their warehouse in Roslyn, their only footprint. They dispense the orders at the pick-up locations on Long Island and through delivery in the city via Uber.
“So the idea is that you shop when it’s convenient for you on your computer, your phone, your iPad, whatever it may be, and you pay for it and then you show up and show your receipt and pick it up,” says Reich. “You want to spend 10 minutes going over recipes, we’d be thrilled to do that with you. But if you’re like, ‘My kids are in the car, I gotta go,’ we’ll be happy to put the groceries in your trunk and send you on your way.
“We keep it refrigerated for you,” he continues. “We try to make it a more convenient experience. A customer is able to get fresher, more high-quality products, still at an affordable price, in a more convenient way.”
Because OurHarvest doesn’t have the traditional infrastructure that a store does and can negotiate prices directly with local farms, they can keep prices lower than what customers would find in stores like Whole Foods, but still have access to produce that is local and incredibly fresh. In some cases, same-day fresh.
“One of our team members is driving back from the city right now meeting some of our suppliers at Union Square,” Reich told the Press. “And the customers who ordered that food, no matter when they ordered it, it’s coming in fresh for them. So it’s not sitting here stocking it and hoping someone buys some chicken, for example.
“Someone bought chicken and tomatoes and lettuce and tuna, whatever these products are, we literally are getting them within hours of getting it to them,” he continues. “So if we’re going to Wickham’s Fruit Farm and we’re picking up beefsteak tomatoes, they are literally harvesting them right before we get there.”
This is in direct opposition to the supermarket model, where foods are mostly imported from across the country or internationally. That produce are shipped to warehouses, then put on trucks to be distributed days later. By the time the food reaches customers at supermarkets, the fruits and veggies are close to perishability, their quality compromised. Only the most discerning customers know exactly where they came from. And the local farmer is out of luck.
“The challenge with that is that the local small family farm doesn’t necessarily benefit from that because the large distributor may not go to a small farm because it’s only 50 acres and they say they can’t produce enough to make it worth our while,” says Reich. “But those small family farmers are the bedrock of how we get our food and how our agricultural system has developed through the course of our nation’s history.”
Through OurHarvest, that small farm is back in the game. But it has to be the right farm. OurHarvest has a series of criteria that suppliers must meet before they agree to sell their products, including price points, farming practices that include no antibiotics, chemicals, or hormones, no, or limited use, of pesticides (on a case-by-case basis, with oversight by a third party to make sure use is conservative), and quality.
“It has to be, like, the best strawberry you’ve ever tasted,” Reich says.
The third pillar of OurHarvest is their social mission. Compelled by the plight of the hungry here on Long Island, Reich and Winik wanted to create a company that helped people around them. Reich, a self-described “recovering” attorney with a strong background and interest in public service, authored the book The Power of Citizenship: Why JFK Matters to a New Generation. He is inspired by the idea that all citizens are connected and are a part of something bigger than themselves. And so they built a way to give back to the community into their very business model.
“According to Feeding America [the leading hunger relief organization in the country], the numbers of people going hungry are staggering,” Reich says. “They estimate that approximately 1 in 6 Americans are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from or they’re simply undernourished. And here on Long Island…there are 110,000 kids who go to bed hungry each night. What a lot of people don’t appreciate is that in our midst, even in relatively affluent communities, there are people who are struggling.”
For every order of $25, OurHarvest donates a meal to a food bank or food pantry through Long Island Cares, Island Harvest, The Interfaith Nutrition Network, and a host of individual pantries as part of their effort to create this sustainable system that not only brings access to this kind of food, but also helps our neighbors in need. They donate the same high-quality products they sell, not “the stuff that’s been frozen for three years or in a pantry for six years after someone’s trying to clean out their kitchen.” They have donated thousands of meals, according to Reich.
So what’s next?
Expansion. OurHarvest plans to keep adding pick-up locations to serve more of the public while keeping to the same model of local suppliers. They plan to branch out across Suffolk County, into all five boroughs and into Westchester. Their model is replicable in other regions as well.
But food-savvy Long Islanders need not wait any longer. There are beefsteak tomatoes at peak ripeness, just a click away.