We were in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan, me and a pruning crew. It was frigid on this second day of spring, and you could see all the charcoal shadows stretching out in front of the big apartment buildings before the sun saw fit to rise fully. Going from tree to tree, all of them honeylocusts with threatening looking bristle-burrs on the branches, I noticed how people had appropriated the “furniture” of the sidewalk – the trees. In the branches I saw, to name just a few things, strings of Christmas lights, green garlands, icicle streamers, a Lean Cuisine mini pizza box and a sign that read “MOVE 100 dollars 24 hours.”
The rice and beans are tasty in this lively neighborhood but there is a pervasive sadness, with trash blowing down the streets and many empty storefronts. I saw a dozen beggars, some of them deranged, most of them asking for 50 cents.
The head pruner on the job, who was also the head of the landscaping company, graced us with his chainsawing skills. And he was good. He transformed more than one ugly duckling tangle of trunk and branches into a cinderella honeylocust. He joked that his next career was going to be as a hair stylist.
We went up and down Broadway nipping and tucking overgrown trees. The street was set for new asphalt and the milling machine had to have room to move along without getting hung up on branches. The son was there too, an awkward guy in his mid twenties, having been doing this job, said his father, “since he was two.” I wasn’t sure what piece of the job he did when he was two. Standing with me, he admired his father’s handiwork as he stood up in the bucket with his saw roaring. “So hard to do an elevated cut without lion’s tailing,” he commented, and I nodded sagely.
A banner across the front of a school caught my eye: “None of us is as strong as all of us.” The limbs of the trees rose from the trunks like a chorus of spring.
Later, on a break, the father bent my ear about clients who want him simply to top a tree to reduce its size. “I would never do anything to harm a tree,” he emphasized. “I can justify every cut I make.”
I like the idea of justifying the cuts you make. The first cut is the deepest, as the song goes. Are the lyrics actually about pruning a tree?
The son had just told me something critical about another arborist who works for the company: “Every cut he makes is perfect, but he is just too slow.” Of course I’d rather be slow but perfect, but I didn’t say anything. The young guy is fast-fast-fast, in his twenties after all.
After the job was over I picked up my car at a garage, standing next to a ruddy faced young man in a yarmulke holding a gigantic bouquet of red roses. We were shifting our feet impatiently as the garage took its time bringing our cars out to us. He spoke to me. “I’m getting engaged tonight,” he said. His name was Dan. On the assumption that his girlfriend would say yes, he had arranged an engagement party for the evening, with friends, music, food, dancing. I asked if he was pretty sure she was going to say yes. “We’re Jewish,” he said, “We talk a lot about these things in advance.” He didn’t have a ring yet, he told me. There would be time for that. Now he had to go home and change his shoes, if they would ever produce his car.
I hope Dan and his betrothed make many perfect cuts together. Not too fast, either.