Category Archives: Jean Zimmerman

Scutwork

Working in The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store can be tedious. I fold sweaters. Process returns, a mental challenge that is only getting slightly easier. Size the merchandise, meaning make sure the clothes go in the proper order on the rack. Take outfits off mannequins. Put outfits on mannequins. Wait for customers. Where are the customers? The mall is dead today. Adults are absent, home shovelling. The teenagers are all here, of course, haunting American Apparel and tussling. They would never come in to our store, which sells to ladies of a certain age. Mature. Silverhaired. Tasteful. Kind of like me.

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The glass doors shut at night and I become the low woman on the totem pole. The manager closes out the books. Someone has to clean the store. That someone is moi. 9:00 at night, my toes pinch me, I’m swiffering the length of the floorboards. It’s not surprising the amount of lint to be picked up, but somehow I’m surprised that the job falls to Jean Zimmerman.

I always think of the portrait Barbara Ehrenreich drew of her experience with a cleaning company, examining the minute and disgusting structure of dust castles under the furniture. When I was sixteen I farmed myself out as a housekeeper one day a week to neighbors, but ran in horror when I realized I had to clean their toilet bowls.

Now here I am. Me, the successful writer, whose fingers usually only touch a keyboard or a Uniball pen, wiping up the dust kicked up by customers. I write books, does anybody know that?! Of course I swiffer in my own home, but there is something different about cleaning up after strangers at the store. Now comes the vacuuming of the dressing rooms, crouching to pick up the detritus women leave behind – hair pins, clothing tags, bits of paper. Shoppers can bomb a dressing room in 10 minutes flat, explode the clothing inside out and every which way, after which I have to restore order.

This is honest work, I tell myself. Someone has to do it. Someone has to empty the garbage pails. My old feet hurt. Putting in new plastic trash bags. Can I go home now? My television and beer await me. My youngish manager counts the cash and calmly takes a look over at silverhaired, stooping me. Her menial days are past. Mine have just begun.

I wanted this job. I wanted a brainless break from writing, to make a buck or two, before tree season kicks in. I didn’t count on making the classy, intellectual person I thought I was into a maid.

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Skipping History

A girl I knew in college used to tell me she had a crush on the subject of Anthropology, in which she had taken so many wonderful courses. She like to say she was having an affair with Anthro, until she came to her senses and settled down with Economics as her major.

I know what she meant. I feel as though I fell in love with history early in my writing career, that it was exciting and wild and soulful, everything I wanted in a subject. (It never disrupted my marriage, however.) As I continued to write, I got deeper into history – I never jumped to economics! – with forays into different periods, especially colonial New York and Gilded Age Manhattan. I was thinking about how the lure of the past grabbed me when I re-shelved some of my research books the other day. I came across a thick, illustrated book about the world of historic textiles, then a compilation of maps dating back to when New York wasn’t yet New York. And I felt a thrill about being connected to all the lives led in the past and being able to access meaning through calico and vellum… yes, and pot shards and iron nails and beaver pelts and all the material goods you get to commune with as a historian.

Now, however, I am discovering the sometimes jarring beauty of something else – How We Live Now (a literary reference, to Anthony Trollope’s most famous novel). Working as a seasonal sales associate in The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store in the mall has brought me up close to retail, and retail is unremittingly of the present. Especially the glimpse of the fluorescent, perfumed corridors in the moments after the stores close, when each storefront is a goldfish bowl that shows the private lives of the people who work there. When the doors are locked, I walk past the Godiva store, where two young men dunk strawberries for themselves into the milk chocolate goo that is usually reserved for the paying customers. I’m fatigued, my feet are sore from pacing the floor and rehanging merchandise, but I can’t help but be struck by relationships between these and other sales associates, like me, with the imagined David Mamet flavor of their interactions. At Ann Taylor, a shoplady sullenly pushes her swiffer around the linoleum. Behind the Apple façade, kids in red logo’d polos bob like maraschino cherries around the Ipads and watches, laughing and loose after their hours serving patrons. I feel wide awake, taking it all in.

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But in the morning, before the stores open, I also get an infusion of non-historic pleasure. Of course we have mall walkers, a sizable number of them, in pairs and threes and fours, deep in conversation as they motor past my store before it opens. I am constantly amused, though, by the gaggle of about a dozen young mothers with strollers, exaggeratingly skipping as they push their babies, all in a line. This, my friends, is today, when legging-attired women drive themselves to be their best first thing in the morning, burning calories as they go, only to consume those same calories with their venti soy lattes at the Starbucks around the corner, the one that is just getting ready to open its doors. You don’t need a history book to appreciate that scenario.

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You’re Not Doing Great. Really.

“You’re doing great,” said the customer, her three big bags of returns flopped open on the counter between us.

Snarl, snarl, I said. Inwardly.

“Really,” she said.

“Why, you are too,” I beamed sarcastically, as I knew I shouldn’t.

She called out to her friend, who was waiting for her. “I can’t believe my husband got me these things,” she said. Her friend called back, “Isn’t this top the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen?”

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I feel defensive about The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store, now that I’ve been here four weeks. My sister-in-law came in and I tried to sell her on a sweater. And I’m good at helping women buy outfits. But there are things I’m bad at.

Ringing up returns, for example, at which I am fumble fingered and slow, peering at the various icons on the terminal screen like the foreign language that they are. Don’t get me started on store coupons.

I’m also lame at “putbacks,” dealing with the mountain of merchandise that has to be returned to the proper racks. I’ll walk around the store three times to find where a given pair of black pants lives. There are at least ten nearly identical kinds of black pants in the store, and I have no idea where to stash one in a timely manner.

Then there’s clearing out the dressing rooms, something you’re supposed to hop to as soon as a customer vacates the premises. Well, I have already moved on to something when they leave (struggling with returns at the register, for example) and the explosive mess of garments left behind falls to a more responsible sales associate to clean up.

I am bad at things. I have never done them before. Don’t hate me because I am ignorant. That I am at midlife somehow makes it worse. I know my accomplishments in the fields of writing and research — but retail is another universe.

This has been an instructive experience. When I go into Starbucks and the service lags, I’m not the one tapping on my watch and frowning. Mellow out, let the sales clerks make their grande flat whites at their own pace. It’s only their due with the money they make.

And maybe it’ll come back to me as a karmic blessing behind the cash register.

 

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Belly Fat and All

Come in here, come in, you’ll see…

I crack the dressing room door and poke my head in.

You see this? She grabs a handful of belly fat. That’s why I can’t wear this, I can’t wear certain things. I’ve always had it…

We’ll find you something, I say. I’ve only worked here a month, but I feel I was in some ways born to do this. I want to succour these shoppers, to give them something they want so badly.

I should have had it cut out years ago, but I was sick, and everything was so difficult.

It’s okay, I say, we’ll find you something.

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It’s a conversation I’ve had many times since I began as a seasonal shopgirl at The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store. Often it’s the belly of an older woman we’re deliberating over (the store caters to seniors with years of that bothersome belly fat), sometimes its her thighs (the pants are all just too clinging, too tight!). The other day a woman of my mother’s age and her gravitas wanted a shirt with a high collar that would hide her terrible collarbones.

Everyone wants to be transformed. To be beautiful. I Feel Bad About My Neck, as Nora Ephron titled her book of essays. We all feel bad about something. Women come to me hoping to be transfigured, for a party, for work, just to make themselves new. To be Cinderella employing a Fairy Godmother credit card.

What makes a woman try on a basic tank and decide she must purchase it in seven colors? It will solve my problem of what to wear to the office, she announces. Same with turtlenecks. Some shoppers collect piles of them, one in every color. The snazzier jackets or tunics or fur-collared vests cause palpitations, sometimes. I love it! I hear all the time. A shopper says to her friend, Don’t you love it? Says the friend, It’s fantastic. I echo, It’s fantastic, it really is.

The fabric seduces, the line of the garment flows. I bring armloads of clothing like bright bouquets to the dressing rooms, dream upon dream of a new you. Especially if the garment disguises that avoirdupois.

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I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

Yesterday, the first day of winter, I bought jonquils, the hoity toity term for daffodils. I had taken my fill of soup dumplings and braised seaweed in Flushing, NY’s Chinatown and was rolling out to the car. Could that really be daffodils they were advertising in the shop window — cut flowers, an unexpected bouquet?

daffodils window

Turns out they were not cut flowers but bulbs. I have another bulb working at home, an ethereal amaryllis, given to me by a botanically inclined friend, someone who knows how to grow everything. I had been lamenting the death of a fine cactus inadvertently left on a remote windowsill. Having something come to life in my house was very welcome.

amaryllis

Daffodils in winter. The trees don’t show their green now, but the flowers will flaunt their yellow before long. In China they believe that forcing daffodils in the new year will bring good luck. I’ll put them in dishes on a nest of gravel from my driveway and hope they bloom, hope I have the luck to get good luck.

bulbs

These are some of the strangest looking bulbs I’ve ever seen. They will be mega-daffodils I’m sure. It’s hard not to think of Wordsworth writing in 1804 on the flower:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
   In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
   Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

A touch of the arbor in my living room as 2016 comes on.

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Storm Hardening

We live in a wooded area in the Hudson Valley where suburban tracts alternate with stone and clapboard homes tucked into areas of forest. In the middle of October, it dawned on residents along my street and others nearby that Con Edison had arrived and was systematically cutting down swaths of healthy trees along the sides of the road. Not small trees but 50 and 75 year oaks and maples were leveled – “a haircut” in the woods, as Gil said. More like a crew cut.

clear cut

The community got angry, naturally, and meetings took place with Con Ed and with town administrators, who first professed ignorance and then appeared to have give the permission to slice the town right-of-way property. It was too late. The roads are now lined with lopped off trunks and piles of sawdust.

stump

One girl told her mother,”Mom, it’s not the road I grew up on.”

Why did it happen? According to Con Ed, measures were taken to ensure that there was less risk of power outages in the event of a disaster like Superstorm Sandy. They called it “storm hardening.” And it’s true that transformers blow in this area when bad weather hits. We have lived candlelit lives for days. After my neighbors threw a collective fit, Con Ed left messages in mailboxes stating they would soon begin pruning trees rather than felling them and that their “professional foresters follow the International Society of Arboriculture guidelines.”  Not the ISA guidelines I’ve ever heard of. A friend and fellow arborist had a theory: peculation, in other words, grease. Someone gets paid a lot to take down trees.

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Woody may look happy, but he is still a stump. When trees come down they don’t come back.

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The Proper Way to Fold a Sweater

An arborist in winter can’t hibernate, even though it won’t be time to plant or nurture trees until the ground thaws in March. An arborist has got to make a living. And that’s how I wound up as a seasonal sales associate in a Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store in the local mall. I don’t think you could be farther from a grove of cedars than abiding in the canned air, holiday muzak and piles of goods for sale where I find myself day after day.

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The Zen concept of “beginner’s mind” applies here. If you approach everything with the earnestness of a novice, the world opens itself to you. I’m still so excited to put aside my decades long writerly habit, profession, vocation, avocation, love, and be out in the world. I’m thrilled to learn the proper way of folding a sweater (hint: there’s a special tool for the purpose). Weirdly, I feel that my long years speaking to groups about my books has prepared me to greet customers as they come in the door, looking for a different kind of knowledge, seeking to learn how they can look the best they can. A different kind of selling. What could be closer to the bone? It’s actually an honor to be consulted as I was today by a woman around my age about whether the lavender or grape turtleneck was a better complement to her features. These are the issues of my day, so simple.

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Is there shame in it, embarrassment at having descended from the lofty heights of authordom to become a shopgirl — or a shopwoman, as you must say about one of my maturity. The truth is there is no shame in any employment, since there are so many lacking jobs. Many of the women I work with have teenaged kids and no men in their lives, an interesting hardscrabble milieu. I remember when I interviewed Navy jet jocks many years ago they all talked about how valuable it was to be humbled, say by the complexity of the F-14 they flew, and they were some of the most arrogant people in the world. So I guess I’ll take a leaf from them and say that treading the boutique floor is a healthy kind of normal for me, a down to earth slap upside the head for one who has spent a lot of time with that head in the clouds.

So the mannequins and the silk and the glitter of the Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store are my grove of trees for now. I go home more tired than I did after eight hours as an arborist, even though I’m working half days. My mind races when I try to sleep at night, seeing corduroy jeans and good wool jackets doing do-si-dos. It’s a form of truth worth being a part of, peoples’ desire to be beautiful. The leaves and branches and bark will be there in the springtime.

hand tree

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The Secrets of Washington Square

I have always been fascinated by the early history of New York City’s Washington Square. Once upon a time, as shown in a 1782 document called The British Headquarters Map, a waterway called Minetta Brook passed from around 21st Street and Fifth Avenue down through Washington Square and on to Greenwich Village. The waters of this ancient stream still run through some downtown basements.

minetta brook

The early topography of Manhattan was to change rapidly in the 19th century, and the park changed too. Graceful row houses went up on Washington Square North in the 1820s. But the reputation of the square was mixed, and public executions still took place there– in 1820, for example, a servant named Rose Butler was convicted of arson and hung there.

And it was a potter’s field, after its swamp was drained in the 1790s, interring the City’s indigent, receiving 22,000 bodies over time. Residents were spooked by a yellow fever epidemic so the graveyard moved uptown. The city bought more land around the square and the Washington Parade-Ground was established, opening July 4th with that mainstay of early America, an ox roast. A crowd of ten thousand attended. More elegant homes gradually went up on the south and north sides of the park. Henry James would situate his incisive novel Washington Square in one of them in 1880.

 

james wash square

But all those bodies underfoot. Did you say potters field? Walking under the arch (erected as a temporary grace note in 1889 out of plaster and wood, then made permanent in Tuckahoe marble, designed by Stanford White in 1892), I found myself obsessed with what lay beneath my feet.

wash square

In June, I accompanied a Con Ed team to install a new gas line at the junction of Washington Square East and Washington Square South. It was a cloudy day, spitting rain. The canopy of a forty-foot honeylocust tree spread above us, its trunk behind the park’s iron fence, in its maturity at least 75 years old. A short distance away, also on the park grounds, stood its neighbor, a nearly-as-tall linden. The three-foot-deep trench the crew was excavating along the sidewalk turned out to be dug on top of a previous trench, and there were no roots of any kind to protect, so all I did was observe.

The foreman was late to the job, I noted, then smoked a cigar and threw the butt in the pit. I had already taken a turn through the park and learned from a handy Parks Department sign that the goldenrain tree was introduced to America in 1763 from Japan. Not this particular specimen, which would then be over 200 years old. I hopped over a metal chain-link divider and held one hand against the bark – as usual no one bothered me with my blaze orange vest, which invests me with instant authority. The trees of Washington Square Park were all so beautiful, especially against the wool-grey sky.

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But did you say bodies underfoot? Six months after my work there a tremendous discovery was announced. Just down the street from where my Con Ed crew was digging in the rust-colored fill that day, a little up Washington Square East, another crew of diggers, these preparing to install a new water main, hit a brick arch only three and a half feet beneath sidewalk level. Through a gap they saw human remains. A second vault was then discovered. A stone was removed, a line of sight. And there were coffins, two dozen or so, including, poignantly, the small coffins of children. Some of the coffins bore lozenge-shaped identification plates.

bones

Excavation stopped, of course. Who were these people? Archaeologists came on site and revealed that at least two churches had cemetaries in the vicinity in the 1820s, and these could be them. It turned out that the first vault had been discovered once before, by Con Ed workers, years ago, who saw about 25 skeletons.

I felt as though I just missed the discovery, back in June, distracted by the honeylocust and linden trees. If only we had known to dig a little deeper. Six inches would be enough. There is so much to find beneath the ground, if you know where to look.

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O Christmas Tree

Went to a Christmas tree farm the day after Thanksgiving. I never thought I’d be a person to get a tree before finishing the leftovers but here I was. Battenfeld’s, in the Hudson Valley, had as many cars as it did trees. The weather was like spring.

tailgate

And dozens of tailgaters made me jealous. I wished we’d brought some chairs and a cooler.

The ranks of trees were mapped in an app you could download: Balsam, White Pine, Douglas Fir, etc., conveniently organized. There was no paper map. Among the beefy, eight-foot specimens you could find the stumps and relics of past years, someone’s Christmas come and gone.

years past

We comparison shopped, topping our fat Concolor with a glove to mark our spot.

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Concolor is another name for the White Fir. The most ancient of these eastern trees can get to 350 years old. I heard one of the workers explain that his mother always wanted one because they have the scent of oranges.

A friend was intent on bringing home a blue spruce.

blue spruce

They have that beautiful hue, but their needles make you understand why they are called needles, they are that spiny.

Someone had to cut down our tree. That would be Gil. Ours was, he said, the Plato’s Cave of trees.

gil cutting tree

Peter took plenty of pictures, documenting our U-Pick adventure. Then the day was over, except for dragging the tree away. I learned how wonderful it can be to wander among the conifers, as unnaturally as they are grouped and bred and groomed at a farm. Nothing is left to accident. In the world we live in, it is reassuring to spend time in a place that is accident free.

dragging tree

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Putting the Season to Bed

The leaves have just about all fallen. I was able to identify a horsechestnut – compoundly palmate leaves, in other words resembling your hand – only by a few crisp specimens that hadn’t yet crumbled in the gutter.

Leaf Horse chestnut

I spent a day driving around Brooklyn visiting tree pits that had been disturbed in the process of putting in new sidewalks and that needed fresh topsoil. A young, ceaselessly energetic landscaper named Byron and I hopped from Hendrix Street to Bergen Street to Benson Avenue, giving modest Ginkgoes a light blanket of earth the color of pumpernickel. We were putting them to bed.

ginkgo topsoil

The topsoil provides nutrients for those roots that had just been nudged by shovels and backhoes, but beyond that it’s just a beautiful coating, a frame for the urban trunks and limbs that deserve the best exhibition possible. If it were me walking out my front door in the morning, I would like to see a tree with its feet in that rich, dark dirt.

Visiting tree after tree, I felt melancholy. I knew that this was the last gasp of the season for me. From now on it will be too cold to pour concrete, too frigid for planting, and an arborist has nothing to do but hibernate with the bears. This has actually been three seasons, spring, summer and fall, but it feels like one rush of communion with trees and tree culture, which I’m so grateful to have stumbled into.

I’ve loved the prehistoric looking roots of plane trees pushing out over the sidewalk. Nothing can stop them.

Plane foot

It’s difficult to tell the types of deciduous trees without their leaves, and so I don’t know whether the two dead giants that crashed across our driveway this fall were oaks or maples or sweetgums. Gil’s chainsaw rendered them into neat circles ready to decompose in pieces in the forest, the final stage in the existence of a tree. Meanwhile, the stored power of the living trees all around is banked like a fire, waiting for the warm weather, which I think of as I lie on the couch watching the kiln-seasoned logs burn in our fireplace, with half an eye watching the men wage war in Kagemusha.

Sad as I am to leave the world of trees until the end of winter, I tell myself that the change of season is not a dying, but a gathering of energy, required for the buds that will soon enough come around.

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Lucky Charms

I’ve tried to wean myself from portents, omens, tricks of the light.

Colors that pop have always seemed to be telling me something, like these asters I saw recently at a botanical garden. I took a deep breath, feeling good things were coming my way.

 

Asters

Today I was on the southern shore of Staten Island, supervising tree planting in a New York City park, and everything seemed loaded with meaning. It wasn’t a cheery day, per se. The skies hung dark and grey. This body of water was Arthur Kill, off of the town of Tottenville; the view across was to Perth Amboy, probably not the most swellegant spot in the world. I was chilled beneath my fleece. Still, the sweep of the coast was ravishing.

staten island beach

Colors popped. The detritus on the beach seemed hallucinatory.

seaweed

So did the incredibly complex needle structure of the Pitch Pines (Pinus rigida) we were planting, along with sweetly bushy Junipers.

pine

A perfect little lighthouse floated in front of me. Fishing boats. Buoys. All around brambles, the vivid red of rusty blood. The near-black loam – until recently a dump filled with lovely things like burned cars – was thick with enormous weathered oyster shells. They spoke to me of good things in the past, Indian oyster feasts on the shores here, and in the future, oysters on the half shell that I would consume on ceremonial occasions. The air itself grew more briny, more aromatic, as the day went on.

I’ve always been able to say a) this wonderful thing is happening, therefore b) this wonderful thing will happen. The trouble with that is there is no actual causal relationship between felicities. Life throws things up like a packet of sparkling pins and they don’t always land back in the pincushion.

But today. We were erecting a small forest, perfect in every way. It could have been painted, a brilliant illustration.

trees in a line

One of the crew was leveling an American Sycamore in its pit. The tree held onto one leaf at its very top like a Christmas star.

Christmas sycamore

The planter, Robert, was like a cheerful Bluto, with a pierced eyebrow, an extravagant beard and those tribal lobe-stretching earrings that it was a little surprising to see on a landscaping guy. The tree was straight as a yardstick at the bottom, but leaned south with its upper limbs.

“I hope that rights itself.” I said.

“It’s like in life,” said Robert, smiling. “Everything gets better.”

The crew told me a humpbacked whale had visited just off shore a week ago, chasing baitfish. I wished I had seen it. Maybe I could come back. Now that’s a sight that would pop.

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The Giant Killer

I’m not overwhelmed with joy about the Christmas tree that just rolled into Rockefeller Center. A Norway Spruce, the 78-foot specimen came from a town called Gardiner in upstate New York, where it towered over its owners’ diminutive house. Or diminutive in comparison, anyway. I always wonder who the tree spotters are, the tree scouts who go out and scour the countryside to find the one that will be massive enough for New York City. In this case the head gardener for Rockefeller Center got wind of the family’s shaggy green heirloom online and ventured up to see for herself.

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I admit, I like my tree over the holidays, but I don’t like to see any of them cut down.

This past week I was surveying tree pits I’d worked at in the last couple of weeks to see that topsoil had been added in the right proportions. My job, of course, is saving trees by protecting the roots that come uncovered when the construction crew excavates the old sidewalk. Now I pulled around the corner and drove down 78th Street in Brooklyn. I was looking for a sizable sugar maple (Acer saccurum), a handsome guy whose roots had been a muscular tangle that needed special care to keep them intact.

No tree. Where could it have gone? Then I saw, lying on the sidewalk, falling into the street, the maple, hacked into thick pieces. The wood was so fresh it looked wet. Sawdust and leaves, everywhere.

1)551 78 St, Brooklyn

I was sick. Who had taken the tree down, and why? I looked back at my notes, which indicated that a long, heavy branch extended over the street. That didn’t seem reason enough to lose the whole thing. You invest yourself in this living being, its branches and leaves, its stout trunk. And then it’s cut.

The man who presented his tree to Rockefeller Center recalled growing up with it, climbing its ladder of branches with his siblings, getting in trouble for getting pitch on their clothes. He said that the tree was just getting too big for his yard.

I don’t really get it. It’s just not a possibility, that I would ever take a saw to a tree because it was too large. Selfish, I know – all those happy tourists in Manhattan for the windows and the sparkly lights, yep. And the lumber’s going to go to Habitat for Humanity in January.

But when it comes down to it, we’ve killed another giant.

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Peak’s Peaked and Pin Oak Drops

Peak has peaked. Peak has punked out.

In the great northeast in the fall we always talk about whether the leaves are peak. When you head upstate to pick apples and pumpkins you want to know: Is it peak? In other words, are the woods in all their glory?

As our peak is beginning to peter out, I began to wonder what the concept meant more precisely, so I asked the nearest folks I could find.

Gil (scanning the horizon over the marsh): Well, there is still some green and there’s brown too, so… I dunno.

peak over marsh

Maud: Isn’t it different for everybody?

Yes, when the leaves on the trees are as yellow as butterflies, that is some person’s idea of bliss. The best ever. And when the hills are a patchwork of gold, red, orange – but it has to be a perfect day, too, with a vast well of sunshine lighting it all up – and things are going well for you, too – that’s peak for some. Identifying what is beautiful with some kind of precision, it’s a way we define ourselves.

maple leaf

For me, I like the browns. In fact I’m the only person I know whose preferred color is brown. Today I spent time with two handsome pin oaks, currently my favorite tree. They have the leaves with points so sharp they take their name from them, and deeply scalloped sides – called sinuses in the tree world. The pointy parts are lobes and the leaf body itself is a blade, in the department of things we all really should know.

These two fairly massive pin oaks, Quercus palustris, one with a caliper of 21 inches and one fully 26 in diameter, stood in front of a small Asian lady’s house on East 55 Street in Brooklyn, shedding acorns as our crew put in a sidewalk around their roots. Wasn’t Sir Isaac Newton inspired by an apple falling and striking him on the head? I got a lot of ideas today from acorns bonking me on my skull.

oak tree

“I remember when they brought these trees here to plant them,” reminisced the homeowner, talking about the City. “Thirty years ago. They were so small. They carried them in burlap bags!”

I knew what she was talking about, having spent time last week in the Bronx planting Ginkgoes, and having held my hand against the wet burlap before the heavy root ball was set in the earth.

burlap

Today’s pin oak leaves were still green and red, but they were beginning to droop and to turn a russet brown, just the way I like them.

oak leaves

How we apprehend peak reminds me of when people talk about what age they are internally. You may be forty, but do you feel you are twenty-six in spirit? Sixteen? Three? (I hope not, that would be weird). I always think I am all the birthdays scrambled up. Yes, in actual years I am getting close to retirement age, but I turn on the radio and the music makes me a college student.

When I write I am no age at all. Age-free, that’s like being an angel.

Wild boars love those acorns too, but when they snort and snuffle around the oaks in the forest the fallen nuts are called mast. You don’t need to ask what is peak for a pig.

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13 Stolen Girls

There’s a faint possibility I might be biased, but my husband Gil Reavill’s crime novels have just been getting better and better. His first one, 13 Hollywood Apes, from Random House/Alibi, was nominated for a Thriller Award by the International Thriller Writers group. Readers are calling his second, 13 Stolen Girls, “one of my favorite suspense novels for this year” and testifying that “when a book makes you yell ‘Oh-my-God’ out loud and get weird stares from complete strangers, you know it’s good!”

13 stolen

If you’re a thriller-mystery reader, Gil Reavill’s “13” series is a serious treat. He has drawn a feisty, soulful detective, Layla Remington, which I think will lead to a new adjective: “Remington-esque.” Gil just turned in the next installment, 13 Under the Wire, which comes out in January. When readers ask him, “What’s with the thirteen business?” he always answers, “That’s my daily page count,” and is not far off the mark. The man is a demon writer. 13 Stolen Girls is available here.

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To Wee or Not to Wee

Let’s talk bodily functions. One bodily function.

I have crisscrossed Brooklyn many times now saving trees. The availability of a place to pee structures my day. After my commute to the site, always on a residential street with nary a store, the first thing I do is trek to the nearest commercial stretch to beg some bodega owner to use their restroom. It’s 6:45 am. Few places are open. Sometimes the person behind the counter just says No, with a cold, distrustful look in his eye.

Out of order! he sometimes says.

Really?

Women behind the counter more often take pity. One said, after the automatic Out of order! and after I begged her, plucking at my orange vest to show I was somehow for real, Only wee-wee? Yes! So I won her over.

The vest counts for a lot.

The day goes on as we proceed to lay new sidewalk and save trees at different sites throughout the borough, and I take breaks when I can to walk off to find facilities at a pizza parlor, a 7-11, a candy store, a diner. The stall at a diner is bare bones.

bare bones

I come back, the workers are digging. The men are pouring concrete, smoothing it out with their floaters. They’re throwing big hunks of old cement into the bucket of the back hoe.

Did they pee while I was gone?

I ask the engineer on the job: Where do they go?

He laughs. He seems surprised that a woman would raise such a distasteful subject with a man she barely knows. Really, I say. I’ve never seen them leave.

They have their ways, he says.

A laundromat I went to with a kind and respectful proprietor had Halloween decorations all over the walls, including framed ghoul portraits and red bloody handprints across all the washers and driers.

The woman had even decorated the bathroom, so that when you turned to the side this skeleton is what you would see. Giving the paying/peeing customer a little chuckle.

skeleton

We traveled across the country once, Gil, Maud and I, and before we left Gil ordered some kind of device off the web so that we wouldn’t have to stop so often at rest stops. Maud and I were disgusted, we didn’t even look at it. But now I sort of see the point.

I think the crew might have a pail in the back of the truck. One of them dumps it at the end of the day, like a chamber pot.

Female jet pilots take their facilities with them into the sky. When you’re flying for 11 hours, trekking to a bodega is not an option.

There are books and websites devoted to finding women’s rooms in various cities, including Manhattan. As far as I know there is not one on Brooklyn. But the quest leads me into some nooks and crannies I might otherwise regard as unworthy of my time, like a little Mexican grocery on Avenue U. The owner was polite in directing me to the back of the store, and as I walked through, past the kitchen, the aroma of fresh tortillas nearly knocked me over. So did the pic on the back of the bathroom door.

mexican

People ask if there are any women on the construction crews I’ve worked alongside. No, I say. Why do you think that is? we wonder. They’re just so strong, I say, It would be a very unusual woman who could do that kind of heavy labor.

There are dozens, hundreds of women macha enough to work construction. But that’s not the real reason, of course. It’s that a woman couldn’t hold it in.

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