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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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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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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