Sunday, August 18, 2013

Remembering “How Long Am I Gonna Live?” and the Lightning Bug

Once upon a time the neighborhood where I grew up in the Bronx teemed with lightning bugs on summer evenings. I even recall swatting them with my whiffle ball bat every now and again, which I know wasn’t very nice, but they were remarkably resilient insects.

As the years passed, and empty space became hard to come by—and mostly a relic of the neighborhood’s past—the lightning bugs’ numbers naturally dwindled along with their habitats. Still, a fair share of them existed, reminding one and all that the lightning bug—the firefly—was once an important part of summer in these parts. If one landed on you, it invariably left an unpleasant odor as its calling card. And while they were a marvel to observe while clumsily flying through the night and illuminating, they were pretty creepy to look at up close.

There are nonetheless plenty of private homes in the old neighborhood with grassy backyards, and nearby parkland as well. So, there must be something else at play here that has cast the lightning bug asunder. I should note this is not a scientific field study on my part. They may, in fact, still be around in some diminished capacity—and probably are in the parks and such. But no matter how you slice it, the lightning bug has seen better days in the big city. And from the looks of things, so has the bee population—a very worrisome trend. I remember countless species of bees and wasps while growing up, and getting stung by more than a few. Their numbers were legion—everything from honeybees to yellow jackets to mud wasps. We used to call mud wasps “mud whoppers” for some reason, and I never liked the looks of them. I don’t see anymore of them around, either.

And now for something completely different: There was an elderly Italian lady who lived up the street from me in my youth. I nicknamed her “How long am I gonna live?” because she frequently posed that question to one and all in her path. She was a “sweet old lady,” not a “mean old lady.” And the neighborhood was chock-full of both. Anyway, she often asked neighbors, including me one time, to “Guess how old I am?” And I guessed. “Eighty-six?” I said. “No, eighty-nine!” she gleefully replied, knowing she had outsmarted yet another patsy. A week or so later, I had another encounter with her and another chance to guess. But this time I knew the answer to her question. “Eighty-nine,” I said very confidently. “No, eighty-seven!” she responded and went on her merry way. “How long am I gonna live” was an old eighty-seven- or eighty-nine-year-old woman. People that age back then, for the most part, really looked their age. They led rougher lives and typically came from hardscrabble places in an age before modern medicine and the many meds that not only make us live longer, but look a little less ancient as we approach the finish line.

I don’t exactly know why the lightning bug and this sweet old Italian lady merited a blog coupling. But maybe it’s that if the lightning bug could talk, it too might pose the question, “How long am I gonna live?” Not forever, it would seem. 

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