Category Archives: Jean Zimmerman

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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Hard Reality

I heard a gunshot yesterday afternoon from within the bowels of the projects to the east of Webster at East 169th St. A short time later a squad car pulled up along with an ambulance and a fire emergency vehicle, and a man was let away in cuffs. Just another day on the site.

Later I saw a young woman wandering into the Associated – she was barefoot and in her underwear, a dazed look on her face. A few days back there was a beat down, two men and a woman on another woman.

We are working under graceful English elms that are at least 50 years old, pre-dating the apartment complexes here.


The work of installing water mains is continually stopped by Con Ed electrical lines (one exploded, nearly electrocuting workers when it was struck), house sewer lines that leak (what do you think the dirt smells like?), crisscrossing Verizon phone and other lines. Under the ground you can see a crazy maze of pipes, some of the ones carrying water a century old. The crew cracks them apart to put in a new valve to regulate the flow as they work. Inside the pipes are encrusted, calcified.


This is our water supply. The safety inspector here tells me that this is why he and his family only drink bottled. I don’t know, I go with the adage that New York City water is among the purest in the country.

Dogs run unfettered here in the South Bronx and they leave their waste on the sidewalks. I saw a pair of boots left out in the trash and they were gone 10 minutes later. The backhoe brushes and bruises the low hanging branches of the Elms. The work: slow. The inspectors stand at the edge of the pit and stare in moodily, no one is happy with the pace.

Why do I like it here?

Because reality can’t be sugarcoated, as it was among the brick mini mansions of Queens, or the hipster enclave of Greenpoint. Here old men hang out on folding chairs at Wellie Transmission Specialist .

Philip is the plumber employed by the contractor. He assembles valves and is a crack technician.


On the streets and sidewalks people show themselves to be cruel. Metal pipes and piles of sand and gravel and asphalt litter the street. Old ladies come out of the rec center on their walkers and wait to take the bus. They chat. Shabby chic isn’t a choice with them, it’s just the way it is.

I wear my kryptonite vest. I smile at the residents that smile at me. I walk fast.

Nothing here is sugarcoated. Except, maybe, Philip.

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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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Goat’s Head Soup

On Webster Avenue at E. 167th St. in the Bronx stands a store with a large sign. Vivero, it says. Beneath the letters is a picture of goats and chickens gamboling  against a bright green landscape. A banner runs across: Lamb Goat Chicken Guinea Hen Red Chicken Rooster. 

I admit it. I am accustomed to buying my meat wrapped up in plastic. Perhaps that is why I have been drawn in to the Live Poultry Mart every couple of days since I’ve been on this job. 

Hundreds of chickens crowd the crates, murmuring. The dozing rabbits stretch out, cream colored or black. But I go to visit the goats who are imprisoned with the lambs in wooden stalls. 

  
I have always liked goats, their infernal eyes, their randy temperaments. These were going to die. I had my eye on a little brown one hunkered down in a corner. “That one’s seven months old,” said Muhammad, who works there not killing chickens, he told me, but eviscerating them. He wants to get another job, he said. 

  
I wanted to save the life of this one baby goat. I called local animal sanctuaries but they were full up, or had anyway met their quota of goats. Also, said one, sanctuaries won’t accept donations from slaughterhouses. The money you pay for the animal only goes to buy more critters to kill. 

I wanted to save the little goat, I was aching for it, but I knew I couldn’t take it on. Wherever Oliver roams is a goat-free zone, believe me. What about my kind neighbor down the road, the one with chickens? Keeping goats is illegal in our town, it turns out. 

Today I visited again. The little brown goat had disappeared. Instead I saw 500 lambs staring at me in the murk, ready for the Muslim holiday coming up. 

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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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Sawcutting Is an Activity

Designed to convince anybody but sawcutters that their lives are perfect because they themselves are not sawcutters.

It makes me feel blessed and a little stressed at the same time that it’s not me bending over at the waist, that these guys have it so tough. For hours, wielding a circular saw with a diamond blade that cuts through concrete.


This is how we get the old sidewalk off to put down the new, and I get to watch not suffer.

Like I say I count my blessings. Small ones. That my job is inspecting and writing up reports, for one. That the air today, though hot (90 now) is dry enough to feel comfortable. That a man at the SRO behind our worksite, sitting in a wheelchair, smiled ear to ear when he saw me, repeating “can I help you?” as he did the first time he saw me and made the joke yesterday.

I am blessed that the ginkgo above my head is sweet, healthy and green.


That there’s a clean and convenient McDonald’s bathroom seven blocks down the Avenue.

And Popeyes, even cleaner, where I got two hot biscuits for lunch, straight out of the oven. That I get to immerse myself in this textured environment, this neighborhood in the South Bronx, for a period of months or more, that I’m allowed to be a fish out of water.

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The Return

Live goats huddle in a musty meat mart, ready to become dinner stew. A storekeeper dresses a stack of new mannequins in African frocks and poses them across a line of fresh mangos. Hand painted signs adorn an old fashioned music store. Women vend ices in the shade. An artist created a muffler man outside a garage. 

  
Chinquapin oaks and zelkovas await their pre construction tree guards. 

  
There is a certain bonhomie among contractors and inspectors, laborer and laborer. A beating sun. The afternoon doldrums. 

After a lazy summer break (novels, peach preserves) I’m back on the job — on a long, pulsating avenue in the east Bronx. I did have to work a couple of days this August, one to identify trees in the vicinity of wheelchair ramps a contractor planned to build under subway lines. Surprise, the trees were phantoms–no one plants them under shadowy tracks! And I returned to a park in Queens at Totten Avenue, perched near the Whitestone Bridge, where I surveyed a venerable mutitrunk muberry tree that brought to mind a towering white mulberry we had in the yard of a house we lived in surrounded by apple orchards. The berries we squished underfoot weren’t very sweet. They rarely are. But the locale was, especially in summer. 

Now I’m helping to protect trees on a project that involves improving bus lines up and down the avenue. There are 40 blocks, 300 trees. It should be a bitch. I’m glad to get back to it. Maybe I’ll adopt a goat. 

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