Category Archives: History

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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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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Honey Wears the Crown 

In the Bronx, at Throgs Neck, there was the scent of honeysuckle growing up chain link, and the taste of mulberries, both red and white, along with the blue glint of the East River under the soaring Bridge. The ground was yellow sand under our feet as we pruned trees. I saw vintage bungalows, one with kayaks stacked on the front porch and I thirsted to move in.

And on a nearby Street, Halsey Ave, ran a boulevard  of honey locusts that someone had adopted for their own purposes. On every one of a dozen trees was posted a religious manifesto, tacked high up where it would be hard to take down.


The honey locust seems the perfect tree to use and abuse in this way. Stubborn, hardy, even brutal, they have roots that grow big and serpentine and push up any pavement that’s laid over them. They make their way into peoples’ basements. Their bark has hard fissures, their twigs are small daggers — landscapers hate working with them, and one variety has stiff thorns growing out all over the tree.


Still, grazing cows and horses across the US delight in their pods filled with bright green pope that mellows as it ripens. The trees we see generally are of a thornless variety. They are popular as urban specimens because they are resistant to heat, drought, salt, basically anything you could throw at them. They grow fast, saying just watch me I’m bad but wait for my feathery yellow leaves in fall. And they make for a perfect crown of thorns.

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The Arborist

What am I?

A writer?

An arborist?

Sometimes it’s hard to sort out. A year ago I “took a break” from books and publishing (my literary agent’s words) and jumped into the world of trees. Since then, something in my chest seizes up when a person introduces me as a novelist, or when I’m called upon to speak about my works of history before an audience, or when somebody says to me at a party, “What do you do Oh, you’re a writer?” I feel like protesting, No, no, no, I’m an arborist. Don’t you get it?

My days have been filled with exotic new things. With learning. About what lies under our feet when we blithely course down the sidewalk, for example how something I’ve always taken for granted, like a curbstone, is shaped.

curb.JPGLike a bowling alley gutter, sort of.

I’ve learned about the crucial importance of a uniform.

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About the delicate beauty of tough New York City trees, like this lithe young lopsided linden.

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The love of guardian lions throughout the five boroughs.

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The imaginary people I was always ensconced with at my computer have been replaced by real people in real time. Like smart and genteel Roland, a Filipino with a Chinese great grandfather, who is the senior inspector for the city on my current job. He’s got seven kids, and he instructed me on how to make a flavorful porgie soup.

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At the same time, as I thump my chest and proclaim myself an arborist, something in me wants to tell the people who know me in this role that I am a writer, thank you very much. I want to blurt out, I’m a writer, actually. I relish the response. Oh really, what do you write? Are your works published? Can I find you on Amazon? It’s a skin I am sometimes happy to slip into. Again.

And here I am, writing about trees, about living, about writing, in this blog. I feel the faint percolation of something inside, not quite a book idea, but thinking about thinking about a book idea.

I’m not sure what it would consist of, but maybe some of these things. It could tell of losing faith in writing and publishing, losing an idea of myself, only to rediscover the world and my self as an arborist. It would be about grand old trees, and street trees, and leaves and seeds and stems. The gnarled, venerable roots of things. My own roots. Yes, and it might feature that recipe for porgie soup as well. The title comes so naturally: The Arborist .

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Glories Strung Like Beads

A nondescript work morning on a nondescript street in East Flatbush. 8:00 a.m. 39th Street off Snyder Avenue.


I haven’t seen one resident –are they all asleep?–but the backhoe is going gangbusters. The usual.

Except…Holy Cross Cemetery across Snyder is getting a haircut and I can smell the cut new grass as the mower motors toward me.


There are slightly soaked bears, signs of somebody’s Iove. You stumble across these pocket graveyards in New York sometimes.

I find velvet roses around the corner, climbing above the chain link.


Their perfume is as heady in gritty Brooklyn as it is anywhere else. I dip my nose in once. Twice.


Here there is the promise of the end of the world and the start of something new. Miracles await.

And I find Amur Maples, something I’d never come across, I’ve never seen.


Walt Whitman, writing about Brooklyn, extolled “the glories strung like beads on my smallest/sights and hearings, on the walk in the street. ”

I’ve never seen anything.

It’s all new.

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