Category Archives: New York City

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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All This and a Cow Face Too

It looks like I will soon be working a new assignment, in a park rather than the mean streets of Brooklyn. Green! Summer! Lofty trees! Even a lake.

Yet I already feel nostalgic for this world of impressively staunch street trees, truck exhaust and rough-edged asphalt corners.

I’ve spent the last week on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, a neighborhood that is dominated by Carribbean customs and flavors. I walk around and everything is out of my wheelhouse, out of my comfort zone.  It’s amazing.

The men on my job pour concrete sidewalks, and the inspectors deliberate over the quantity of water in the mix.

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Meanwhile, without a tree to care for today, I roam. Salvation beckons on just about every corner.

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What about the second born and third born? The gospel is tucked away sometimes.

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I always want to get the names of the tabernacles down when I’m driving past and regret not being able to. I never knew so many existed.

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I like watching how women go about their lives here. There are produce stands everywhere, some with edibles I know.

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And some that baffle me. Some kind of space potato, maybe.

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The ladies here comb the displays for the perfectly ripe mango or green coconut and select just that one, foregoing a bagful, whether out of economy or exacting taste I don’t know. I love that these markets have not been coopted, all saran wrapped like Shoprite. This is a foreign land where newcomers have retained their habits.

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The offerings at Fish World just swam in this moning from the West Indies.

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There are baby sharks, delicate porgies and orange striped fish that look like Nemo. Me and the other women get a stainless bowl and a plastic glove and lift the whole fish into the bowl to go to the register. I purchased a red snapper and baked it last night Veracruz style, it was delicious. There’s also a bin of heads and tails and shoppers have a field day with: soup fixings.

Every other store is a hair braiding joint or a nail salon. Women dress to impress, their aspirations indicated by this sign for a beauty shop.

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Signage fascinates me, like this lamppost poster. A woman on a bucking bull in Brooklyn.

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A very sexy rodeo. Really. Well, meat is a theme here, live or butchered, with some of the stores devoted to it (Meat Mart). You have to work your way through dank-smelling aisles to find the true gems, the items on sale today.

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I’m going to miss this neighborhood, its mysteries concentrated in a six block radius. I’m turned inside out, almost levitated by the power of all I don’t know.

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Beauty That Is Chill

This is real rain, real life.

It’s a particularly beautiful deluge. The young cherries have shed their ballet-pink petals in a skirt around their grassy roots. The sassier pink of the dogwood blossoms shines against the low gray sky. Banks of azaleas adorn the sedate  streets of Fresh Meadows, Queens.  

I’m hiding from the drops temporarily in my car, where I have a good vantage on men laying pipe for a new water main. It’s a cold rain, and the chill magnifies the lucid gorgeousness of this spring morning. The workers have labored under wet conditions many times before. A friend with relatives in construction told me that on rainy days they crowed “tavern skies!” before ducking into the bars. I don’t see much work stoppage though–the crews I’ve been with hit it rain or shine. Maybe those were different days. “The water is wet!” says a big guy named Juan, today, and he is roundly ribbed by the foreman. I don’t see anyone complaining.

Work proceeds. I am cold just watching it, cold from having ventured out suggesting to the foreman that he erect a tree guard around a delicate specimen that has a pile of heavy black pipe piled at its feet.

Trying to make something happen in the world.  No, he’d prefer to have his guys doing other things. He’s got the tougher job of getting those pipes put into the ground (and it has to be foolproof, they can’t leak). But for me to be in the world in the rain is new. Writing, sitting at my dry desk, hands on the computer, my feet lodged warmly in their slippers, I would put together words about rain. Characters might meet in the rain, take their leave in the rain. Kiss in the rain. It might pour outside my window over the marsh, I’d see the reeds bend their feathery heads, but no storms for me, I didn’t feel a thing. Didn’t really see the new green.


Just the excitement of creating the storm, making it rain on the page.

Now I go home shivering, chilled through my thin raincoat. Do you know what a just-hatched oak leaf looks like? Fingernail sized, fragile and the softest of greens. It will grow up to be strong and tough, but for now it’s a pretty baby.  You can see them if you come out, eyes open, to work in the chilly spring rain.

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When Gertude Stein Came to Brooklyn

The barricades attach themselves to barricades on West Street on the Brooklyn waterfront. The flagwoman holds her sign she loves the barricades she hates the trucks and she blows on her whistle her whistle her whistle. The laborers work with one another they flirt with one another they work and they flirt. Inspectors inspect one another.

The sky shines white the buildings shine silver the new sliver building shines silver as a dime and pierces the sky beyond Brooklyn.

Trees behind barricades mean nothing to anyone they mean something to the arborist and nothing to the laborers the laborers want to knock down the barricades all the barricades all the time.

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The laborers flirt they hurt they have fights they fight and they flirt they don’t see the arborist the arborist is behind a barricade the barricade must be knocked down.

A pickaxe is a pickaxe a pickaxe is only a pickaxe    A shovel is useful for digging trenches a trench is useful for holding pipe. Water is useful for drinking. Water is turned off city water residents want water the laborers put in the water they shovel they pickaxe they lay pipe they offer water they don’t think of trees. Trees stand behind barricades they are visible they are visible to the arborist who stands without a pickaxe.

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The Beautiful Sea Air

I went to Coney Island to survey trees first thing this morning. At that hour the streets were empty and Luna Park smelled like fresh paint – the season is coming soon enough. The Cyclone was ghostly, silent.

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You might be surprised how many trees there are at Coney Island. I saw some soaring oaks. Of course concrete predominates. But then, as seven rolls around to eight, life breathes into the barren streets. People start to come out and about. Music floats out of car windows, even Motown, somewhat surprisingly. Teams of men are washing windows on some dingy high-rises. Chain-link daffodils bloom gaudily.

I went around thinking about beauty in the fresh sea air, about the window washers on those dingy high-rises working to let more beauty in, and the people that planted those bright daffodils behind the chain-link. I exchanged a shy smile with my fellow boss in orange, the female flag person directing traffic.

We all want beauty. I’ve learned so much about what is gorgeous looking at trees. I am coming along in my ability to identify species in the up until now cold weather. And it’s come to a point where I’ve decided that trees are not lacking when they don’t have leaves yet, when they are out of season. Really their beauty is more pronounced when they are bare. I do like greenery and I do like soothing shade, but  I love bark, like the diamond furrows of this ash.

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You have to lay your hands on it, don’t just use your eyes. Here’s a lilac tree.

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And don’t you just want to touch the patchy orange-gray of this zelkova?

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Look at the impressive sprawl of this london plane.

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I have a book called Bark and that’s what it is all about. Very niche, quite nerdy, and just up my alley at the moment. Most bark, it is true, is similar, gray and furrowed. But if you pay attention, if you truly want to learn, then you begin to see the differences.

Now as spring progresses I’m seeing new movement among the bare ones. Mysteries, to me, since I am so new an arborist. Open yourself to me! Tell me what you are.

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Or lush cherries coming into blossom, their buds like paint brushes dipped in fuschia.

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Some trees, I know, have flowers that actually open on their trunks. Now that’s beautiful.

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