Category Archives: Culture

Gale Force

The wind won’t stop. Trash blows through the air, all around the towering projects, skitters along the sidewalk, chasing scraps of paper, cardboard boxes and gust-inflated store bags, black and white. I hide from the cold in my car, awaiting trees to guard. Today excavation goes on in the street, too remote from the London plane and yellowoods to endanger them. I’ve already checked on all the trees on my site, which are safely ensconced in their protective wood frames. 

The wind blows grit against the skin of my face, in my eyes. I nearly got whacked on the head by a metal store sign that had come loose and was flapping back and forth. Young people in safety vests walk the street with a garbage container on wheels and long handled dustpans, but they can’t possibly pick up all the trash as it swirls around them. The city doesn’t bother with public trash containers in the Bronx, it seems.

Workers build houses under the ground so the trench won’t collapse in on them as they work. 

These below ground cabins are muddy on the bottom but otherwise strike me in my innocence as looking very cozy.

The first thing I saw this morning was a man throwing a kitten out the door of his bodega, then coming out to shoo it down the street. The baby tabby shivered in the wind looking back toward the shop door before racing away into the wind. While this went on the usual troubled man stood outside the store by the ice machine, barking and muttering and throwing his head back on his neck.

Here on Webster at East 169 St., men in cars drive up to the tire emporium and jump out to admire the rims for sale. It’s a fascination for them. Stacks upon stacks of tires have been piled beneath the mosaic of silver rims hanging on the storefront . If you can decide, you can get the job done right there in front of the store.

A few blocks away the fortuneteller has had to take her sign down out of the wind. 

The soothsayer reads palms in the back of the smoke shop, waiting all day for a customer. I’ve never been in to see her, much as I obsess about my future. Maybe sometime, if this wind ever dies down.

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Queen for a Day

There is a lot of hurry up and wait for an arborist working on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, catch basins and pipes go into the trenches and the equipment doesn’t brush a tree. In the meantime I people watch.

The folks here are diverse. There isn’t money for Park Avenue designers, but some of them dress like queens. A big African contingent, mainly from Gambia, awes me.

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I’m in my dowdy fluorescent vest and hard hat and they’re flying by in gold embroidered hijabs. Even the little girls have their heads covered. Adolescent girls – princesses, I’m sure – wear the same. I see one hurrying to the first day of school, her head wrapped in a cocoa-colored scarf, pink Converse All Stars on her feet.

A dirt-covered beggar spends his crumpled dollar bills at Dunkin Donuts.

Two Beastie Boys, brims in reverse, cross in the middle of the avenue. A mustachioed older gent in a Navy suit with a light green ascot steps out of the dollar store. A woman crosses the street to get a bottle of water, leaving her chihuahua on the sidewalk, unleashed but waiting patiently for her return. There are turbans in all colors, for one man a pristine light lavendar. Self propelled wheelchairs zoom by, dozens of them. Dreads abound, a head of magenta, another woman with black snaking down her back and a clutch of rings in her nose.

In a store display I see clothes I could wear on the job if I was really daring.

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Their only interaction with the white woman in the hard hat is to ask where the bus stop has been moved to.

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I Hate New York

I hated New York for a minute today. The rain poured down. I got soaked – the orange vest is not weatherproof, it turns out. Detritus from Popeyes and Burger King littered the gutters. The street sweeping machines just pushed the greasy paper all around, making it no less disgusting.

I went on a quest through a “grove” island on the west side of Webster Avenue at East Tremont because the Parks Department wanted a tree identified. I foraged in and found it, a Japanese cherry, standing dead and smack in the middle of what was one of the more unsightly thickets of street trees in the city.

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I watched a man drag his adolescent son down the street, cursing at him and cuffing him on the head.

A shooting took place right at my work site last night. The bullet hole could be seen in a pull down metal shutter in back of the red oak I surveyed yesterday. The shooter stood where I stood. A group of five uniformed cops and a bunch of detectives parked themselves on a stoop there for most of the day, waiting for something to happen. I hoped it wasn’t going to happen while I was there.

So I was glad to get out of the Bronx by the end of the workday. I was hating it. But the thing about New York, it absorbs your hatred, it doesn’t mind, it’s waiting for you when you come back, when you come to your senses. And you will.

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As Beautiful as a Day Can Be

…when the calendar page flips over and suddenly you’re older by a year.

But let’s take stock. Here on West Street there is a tumbling breeze and the sky is robin’s egg blue–what a cliché, let’s just call it cliché blue –with streaky white clouds and sunlight that bakes us all but perfectly.

The men frame up curbs by laying boards vertically in a trench, a long pink string stretched taut. Everyone is already dirty, first thing in the morning. The backhoe hauls up chunks of the old pavement.

A movie shoot has come to Greenpoint today, The Deuce, for HBO, and the little old factory streets are crammed with orange cones and film trucks. Kids go by carrying styrofoam shells of gourmet commissary food. They wear skinny T’s and skinny jeans on their skinny little bodies and clipped to their clothes are the tools of the trade, buckskin gloves, walkie-talkies.

Our commissary is a quilted metal truck  with spigots built-in for hot water and coffee. It’s 8:30, time for “coffee” which really means a sandwich. When you work this hard you need two lunches. These guys wear rawhide toolbelts hung with hammers and wrap their heads with bandannas like pirates.

Standing to the side I am ignored by the youngsters for whom my age and vest make me invisible, and by the laborers, for whom my sex makes me a cipher. What am I doing here anyway? On this birthday I float in the middle of everything. The millennials,  the laborers, the sunshine, the breeze.

A young man leaning against the same wall asks me what is going on with the construction. He is perfectly adorable, adorably perfect, dark blue eyes and wavy hair. Smoking a cigarette, badly. His name is Adam. Adam tells me about the rentable green space in the building, the CrossFit club and the mega storm that hit the city at 5 o’clock yesterday. With a small trace of pride he mentions that he left his motorcycle parked up the street.

In his company I forget all the skinny minis and instead admire the  thudding, wide-eyed, all-inhaling heart of youth. I’ll never be there again, sure. But I can see it better than ever.

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Where the Boys Are

I possess a special dispensation that allows me to sit down and rest on a concrete block in the narrow bar of shade beneath a warehouse while the laborers dig. It’s called gender. And it does feel good to take a rest at about 10 am, three hours into the contractors’ New York City work day, with the temperature already spiking to the high 80s. The men rake gravel over the flat site of the new sidewalk, their faces boil red, they work unceasingly except when they take swigs from pint bottles of water – That’s not enough water! Not nearly enough! I want to call out to them. Hydrate. Because I am a schoolmarm, and I want to tell people to drink in the sun.

But I don’t. My lips are sealed. As an arborist, one who happens to be female, I am mostly ignored, except for the few occasions I have to bring my four sweetgum trees to someone’s attention. We’re on West Street, on the Brooklyn waterfront, a place that’s getting a total facelift as Greenpoint unceasingly gentrifies. These four trees are the living remainder of dozens that got taken down earlier this year because they stood in the way of construction.

All the man stuff seems like a cliché — the bonhomie, lots of hand shaking, especially first thing in the morning, the fights, half serious, yelling that doesn’t come to blows, crotch scratching galore. I knew this was a place of men going in, but now I’m acutely aware of of being the only antelope among a herd of water buffalo. They talk behind my back (sometimes in Portuguese), but so surreptitiously I never catch them at it. We have conversations once in a while, but I feel I have to keep my guard up, not be too cheerful or chatty, lest I become “the girl” and lose their respect. Some girl, I’m twice most these men’s age.

We share an experience. Here is what we have at eleven o’clock. It’s simple. Three men digging an enormous hole, a backhoe hauling up tons of dirt and lumber, massive rocks and pipes, while four inspectors stand at the edge, peering solemnly into the trench. Meanwhile, a truck from King’s Building Supplies rumbles by, loaded with bags of material like king-size loaves of bread. I feel as though I am the only woman for blocks around.

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The sun has broiled us all, and now the clouds roll in. Over the green painted plywood fence to the west you can see the crenellated Manhattan skyline, from the Freedom Tower to the Empire State Building. Soon a real estate mogul will erect an urban village here, where every tenant will have a river view. At 2:30, Elite Concrete pulls up with its churning mixer and its cobalt cab, and the workers start in with rakes and floaters, knee deep in the chocolate-pudding-like cement.

The crew heckles the new guy, who works twice as hard as anyone, a goofy smile on his face. They can be mean or sweet, emotions are high. All the older guys are beer bellied, their guts distending their safety vests, while the young ones stay tendon-thin. The project supervisor chain smokes, his face the color of pastrami. I stand beside a laborer watching a guy welding, he tells me not to look and holds his fingers up to his eyes to pantomime crying. Never look at the light of a welding torch, it’s as bright as the sun. I feel ashamed of my ignorance of these most basic man-matters. An 18-wheeler drives by with a load of crushed cars. West Street is a work site but also a thoroughfare, a speedway for tractor trailers to bang through Brooklyn carrying lumber and sheetrock and rebar.

I have to be here – the city requires an arborist to be present whenever a construction site has trees. I’m a pain in the neck of this crew. That I lack a Y chromosome is an added perplexity. I’m a high-pitched gnat in someone’s ear: Will you build the tree pit forms today? When will you install the steel-faced curbs? Yes, yes, Jean, you’ll just have to wait until we get the real work done.

Men’s work.

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Hear Me Roar

Myriad gnarly lions guard the brick houses of Queens. These are among the gnarliest, even if they are surrounded by pretty posies.  

There are chickens running uncooped down the street here, 104 street in Howard Beach. Maybe they’ll eat them.

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Freshly Pruned

Renee holds a bouquet of ginkgo branches fresh from pruning in Astoria, Queens.renee.JPG

Narcisso told me you can weave a canoe out of these things and float.

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