Living in a place like
New York, one can sometimes lives years without ever getting to know
one's own neighbors. This is certainly true of Bay Ridge,
Brooklyn, where it is often necessary to shut out the rest of the world
merely to escape the crush of people that live and work in this town
Actually, itís a little more complicated than that, so Iíll start at the beginning. Not long ago, I wrote a tribute to a man who had passed away just two days before Thanksgiving last year. His name was Joe, and he lived in the basement of my apartment building. He was the custodian of our building, but more importantly, Joe was out friend.
After Joeís passing, his biological family squabbled over the cost of his final expenses, while the tenants of the building "Joeís extended family), waited for details as to where to attend his service. Unfortunately, there was no service. Joe was pt to rest quietly and uneventfully, without the opportunity for his friends to gather for one final farewell.
I found this conclusion to Joeís life to be unacceptable, as there were a lot of feelings that the other tenants and I wanted to express, as to the way in which Joe had touched our lives. My feelings compelled me to write about him, and I submitted a tribute to Joe to The Spectator. Much to my surprise, my article was published and read by many tenants of the building- which brings me to my neighbors, the Sundens.
I had always known Jude and her husband Norman to be kind, caring human beings. They have run a non-profit organization called Muffinís Pet Connection since 1988, placing almost 6,000 unwanted abused, sick and stray animals into loving homes.
As soon as one walks into Jude and Normanís apartment, their passion for animals becomes immediately apparent. All four walls of their entry foyer are covered from floor to ceiling with literally hundreds of photographs of pets and their newfound owners. But these are not just ordinary photographs. When one looks deeply into the faces of both pets and their owners, one is looking at the beginning of a life-long friendship. In each and every photo, you can see that magic has been captured in one special moment.
While I marveled at Jude and Normís wall of fame and saw the happiness of other others spanning many years, I remember thinking how proud I would be if I had proof of such an accomplishment. Champions of animal rights for decades, Jude and Norman also practice vegetarianism and meditation, and are committed to living a life more in harmony with nature. These were the things I knew of Jude and Norman. I was soon to find out more about them than I ever could have imagined.
Jude had knocked on my door one Saturday afternoon with a copy of my article in hand after Norm had spotted it in The Spectator. Upon reading it, he realized that it was about "our" Joe, and further realized that it was I who wrote it. Jude had come by to say how touched she and Norm were by my story.
After some very kind words, Jude invited me in to talk more seriously about my writing. Once past the incredible walls of pet owner fame, we settled into the living room brimming with life. Cats and plants seemed to dominate the space, and Jude sat comfortably in her chair, presiding over her miniature nature preserve. Long silvery hair, elegant features and long, blue cotton dress gave Jude the countenance of the ultimate Earth Mother. If it were not for the fact that Jude and Norm had spent most of their lives in Brooklyn, I would say that they were the perfect California couple.
As we settled into our conversation, I soon learned that as a life-long resident of Bay Ridge, Jude had attended P.S. 104 and Fort Hamilton High School. But that was only the beginning of her story. Much to my amazement, Jude revealed that she had been a writer for The Spectator with her own column back in 1966 Ė at the tender age of 19! Her column was "Teen Talk," and she was gracious enough to show me her old newspaper articles kept in scrapbooks that had seen better days.
As I looked through her articles that were written in the year I was born, it became quickly apparent that these were not the writings of a silly teenager, but were the sophisticated thoughts of a young person with a lot of passion, and a lot on her mind.
Maybe it was because it was the radical 1960ís, but the content of Judeís "Teen Talk" (written for teenagers by a teenager), seemed to speak to a more advanced audience. Speaking of politics, war and equal rights, Judeís writing mirrored the turbulent times she lived in. In sharp contrast to the teenagers of todayís MTV generation, I found Judeís concerns for the world at 19 as important and relevant today as they were back in 1966.
Almost two years later, after much success with "Teen Talk," Jude was given the chance to publish her very own neighborhood newspaper. One December 15, 1967, The Woerble ("The Discriminating Newspaper for the Discriminating Teenager") unleashed itself on the Bay Ridge community. Jude was just 21 at the time. Produced by a staff of teenagers and filled with articles on local news, current events, fashion and music, those old, yellowed pages of The Woerble serve as a time capsule to those times.
It was these experiences with The Spectator and The Woerble that sent Jude on her way, and laid the groundwork for her life-long commitment to animals. Forever educating the public and helping to raise awareness, Jude has been very much a pioneer in the area of animal rights, a long with her husband, Norman.
As we began to wrap-up our trip down memory lane, Norm inevitably came into the conversation. After all I had learned of Jude I realized that I still didnít know much very much more about her husband. Norm is a tall, quiet, unassuming man and former cab driver. I often see him in my travels, or walking a neighborís dog. This image of him was turned upside down when Jude told me that in his carefree youth, Norman had driven a motorcycle across the country and was piloting airplanes at age 16. Unbelievable.
I once drove a U-Haul truck from New York to Texas in five days. I had air-conditioning and music, but it was a pretty rough ride. I can only imagine the tough going of traveling from New York to California, glued to the seat of a motorcycle. Upon trying to visualize this hot, uncomfortable journey Ė with thoughts of "Easy Rider" creeping into my mind Ė my respect for Norman doubled.
Jude and Normís words of praise and encouragement meant a lot to me, and Iím a better person for knowing them. Itís like Iíve always said Ė your neighbors arenít always what you think. Say "hello" to one of them next time and see what happens.