Early in the morning, every now and then, I hop into my truck with one of my sons and head up to Montauk Highway for some bagels. As my truck sidles along down the road beside Islip High School, there is Jimmy Gaffney, working away at this and that on the grounds of the school. I beep, my son yells “Jimmy” out the window, and Jimmy waves and laughs. Every time it happens, it seems like I’m in a charming Frank Capra film.

And in the evenings, as I look out onto the beautiful grounds of the Islip Presbyterian Church, there again is the figure of Jimmy at work, busy at some task or another.  His movements are slow, yet deliberate.  I call out to Jimmy, and he turns his head up in surprise.  He squints, waves his arm above his head, laughs, and heads over to talk.

So many of us in Islip know Jimmy well.  He’s been working as a custodian at the high school for many years, and after his days work at the school he walks over to his second job at the Presbyterian church.  Generations of students and churchgoers alike recall his ever present smile, and his calm manner.  In my conversations with him, he has a knack for always turning a conversation towards an optimistic view of things.  And though he work very long hours, I’ve never once heard him complain.  On the contrary, after services at the Presbyterian church, as he pushes a broom along the beautiful maple floors, he always spoke of the pleasure he has in being around people.

One of my favorite things about Jimmy is the thing which he himself has never spoken about.  A few people have told me that Jimmy is found one evening a week, every single week of the year, working in a soup kitchen to feed the needy.  He volunteers, and doesn’t tell anybody that he does it, but there he is behind the counter, serving food to other people.  And in the New Testament I recall that “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress…” and “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…”

For a long time, I had it in mind to paint Jimmy.  A year and a half ago, I asked him if he’d sit for a painting, and if he did, would he ever grow his beard a little bit for a nice effect?  He laughed at my request, and said he’d certainly grow his beard and hair a bit, if it would make for a good portrait.  Well, absentminded artist that I am, time elapsed, and I forgot about our conversation.  Jimmy and I would bump into each other every now and again, and every time his hair got longer.  And longer.  And longer yet, til he could easily be mistaken for some Old Testament prophet.  Finally, one day I asked Jimmy if he had some free time to sit for a portrait painting in my studio, and he said “I thought you’d never ask.  Once it is done, I can finally cut my hair.  I’ve been wondering how long you wanted it to get.”  I suddenly recalled that long forgotten conversation, laughed really hard, and apologized profusely that I was the reason that he looked like Moses descending from Mount Sinai.  Jimmy laughed pretty hard as well.  The hours flew by as Jimmy sat for his portrait.  He talked about his trip to New Orleans to hear authentic New Orleans jazz, and eat Cajun food where it’s made right.  He spoke of his childhood, and his fond recollection of his mother.  And, I spoke about the painting, and how great the beard was for a painted portrait.  Once the portrait was finished, he returned to his clean cut hair, and scraped chin.

Jimmy embodies an aspect of Islip that is wonderful, and yet is fleeting.  It is not mere sentimental nostalgia to reflect on the fact that before social media, before cell phones, before high speed traffic on Main Street, there really was another time.  A time when there were those that would gather at the hardware store to talk before heading over to Poppy’s for breakfast, those that would talk politics over pints of beer, those that would stay on the lawn long after church service to chat with friends.


A Time to Talk

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

-Robert Frost