And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks

Maybe it was because I woke to the book jacket of And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks (Burroughs and Kerouac) as I put on my work clothes in the dark, quiet living room, but things began to seem creepy. Stalled in traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway I thought I saw a mastodon tooth dangling from the rear view of the Honda in front of me. Taking the curves of the Jackie Robinson through the vast cemetery my mind grew fixated on the decayed bodies not far from the turf above, laid end to end, and their long wavy hair. Walking to the bodega near Troy Avenue in Brooklyn I saw alleyways, spooky corridors with dusty garages housing body parts, and not auto body parts.   The sky grimaced, locusts were thick with thorns, billy goat was the fare of the day and roots swam like infant sharks in the soil of the trench.   

Next to the work site a ghost girl sat cross legged, book on her lap, sweet behind the rosebuds.   The spray paint markings on the sidewalk signified a runic, witchy code rather than electricity and gas lines.   And then suddenly I met Andrea, a nurse, who had been married for 47 years.  She had ordered her lamp specially.  For this moment I think she is all light in the world. Surely she will  protect us from harm. 

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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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Budding Out

Long ago, probably 50 years ago, someone planted a grove of oaks along the Kings Highway in Brooklyn, running from Farragut Road to Clarendon. A greek proverb says, “A society grows great when old people plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.” I surveyed trees there on the two medians that bracket this frantically fast and loud urban speedway. Old, gnarled, rough-trunked trees are not what I think of when my mind goes to NYC normally, especially its fast roads. But here there was a forest, the inheritance from the days of monoculture, when people in charge of planting in New York thought it was ideal to plant all one species. You could tell you were not deep in nature, however – many of the trunks were marked similarly with gross tearing of the bark at the bottom, about knee height. I asked a homeowner about it. “Yeah, we have a lot of traffic accidents on this road,” he said. But however victimized the oaks were by human car culture, they stood tall and survived.

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Today I’m standing on the margins of another highway, the Bruckner Expressway, a Robert Moses creation. Bruckner Boulevard is the service road that runs along both sides of this freeway, and it has trees that need pruning. The trees are in bud, about to leaf out – zelkovas, london planes, ash trees, cherries all coexist with the traffic fumes and grit and wild traffic patterns of the Bronx. Another grove of sweet green in the midst of concrete, cars and trucks.

I watch a plump squirrel carrying a wisp of something scurry across the pedestrian overpass, headed for its nest. There’s a collection of ash trees here, too, though emerald borers have had their way with them. London planes bulge with a girth of 30 or more inches like satisfied Buddhas. And there are the pink and green infant samaras so delicately dangling from the branches of the sycamore maples.

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Here are some whirligigs posed in the palm of the landscaper’s son, a millenial who knows how to wield a chainsaw and has already received his tree climbing certification. Still, he prefers to surf.

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One resident left her love on the bark of a juvenile london plane.

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Spring comes to the highways of New York, just as it does everywhere else, and it is brought there by trees above all.

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The Pleasures of the Urban Arborist

I wish I could suck it all up, absorb it and remember every single thing. Driving in the black night over the highways of New York City to get to the site. The lichen on the burly oaks. Their majesty.

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The flashy red leaf plum.

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The smell of sesame oil wafting through the Chinese neighborhood at Francis Lewis Boulevard. The 7:30 am parade of children to school, holding their parents’ hands. The identical row houses of Queens. The crone who was surprised when I approached her: “She’s a lady!” which is true, though I like feeling a little bit like a man on this job. The persistent smell of exhaust from the landscaping truck. Prickly sweetgum balls, red maple twigs, the puffs that hang swaying from the london plane.

 

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The way the root of the l.p. emphatically bulges over and raises up the sidewalk.

 

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The resident who was aghast that her neighbors had had their mammoth tree butchered: “I came back from Vegas and it was done!”

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The haunted houses of Brooklyn.

 

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Learning to differentiate between a zelkova and a linden. Bad bodega coffee. The best lunch in the world.

 

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The soapy grace of laundromats that let you pee there. Proud pit bulls. The soft detritus of leaves pushed up against the gutters. Laying my palm on a fat cherry trunk, feeling its lenticels under the pads of my fingers.

Days that are poems.

 

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And always, the juxtaposition of the natural and the manmade.

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I’ve been doing this for just under a year now.

 

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The Saddest Sweetgum in New York

Proceeding along Braddock Avenue in the Bellerose neighborhood of Queens, high winds gusting all around, we went about the business of pruning street trees. I saw dozens of American sweetgums. Liquidambar is the poetic scientific name for the species, and it refers to the honeyed sap that flows beneath the bark if you cut into it. I love these trees, most especially for their fruits, prickly brown seed-filled “gumballs” that litter the ground in winter.

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They hold on tenaciously, coexisting with the waxy pinkish flowers about to unfurl in spring as though they just can’t say goodbye to mommy and drop away.

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They remind me of the coal carriers in  Hayao Miyazaki’s inspired movie Spirited Away.

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One tree I came across was well past its prime, weathered and half dead, its limbs truncated where Con Ed had cut them free of the power line that ran through its crown. Any branch that enters the “box” around the line, my pruner told me, is unceremoniously lopped off.

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It was about the saddest sweetgum I’d seen, the old girl. She had a shape like the Winged Victory of Samothrace, but she was not treasured and adored but left to linger in her too-small tree pit with razor wire for a neighbor.

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She brought to mind Shel Silverstein’s disturbing fable The Giving Tree, in which an apple tree gives itself unceasingly to a boy, until all that is left of it is a trunk. The thing about a book, though, that allows children to not die from the horror of this story, is that you can go back to the beginning again and again, seeing the tree whole and gracious. Yes, the tree suffers an awful decline, but it springs to life everytime we open the book’s cover. We have a chance for a do-over. That is the power of art.

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I am writing this now as the trimmed branches from another tree rain down around me, the crew’s work almost done for the day. I’m standing fifteen blocks from the saddest sweetgum in New York, too far to pay a call before I get in my car and leave for home.

I don’t know if I want to see her again anyway. She’s old and homely, her spiky fruits long fallen. She has nothing to give, unlike the presents of the giving tree. She is all that has already been taken, in this harsh city, and nothing, no careful pruning, no perfect cut, will bring her back.

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I’m Already Bored

I’m learning what boredom means, and learning from boredom.

My assignment this week was to look after some trees at a Con Ed site where a new gas line is being installed.

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Six trees stood along the south side of East 10th Street, their trunks rising from tree pits all along the sidewalk, spanning the length of the trench the pipes were going in. What do we have? Pyrus, pyrus, gleditsia, pyrus, pyrus, ginkgo. It has a nice, leafy ring to it: pear, pear, honeylocust, pear, pear, ginkgo. Another arborist was present when the trench was initially dug to ensure the health of all the visible roots. I was on call now because NYC requires that an arborist be present on construction sites whenever there is work being done around trees. Isn’t New York munificent? Trees won’t die on the city’s watch.

So here I was. And as Con Ed filled the trench, there was little for me to do. I would pop over and check the roots to the tree side of the trench once in a while. The roots are still intact. Proceed, good men, proceed.

Once, some time ago, I was playing canasta with friends and my husband. One of us – it was probably me – embarked on a longwinded description of the plot of an independent movie. One of my friends interrupted, saying, “I’m already bored!” The line still has me laughing.

At the site I’m already bored at 8:00 in the morning, when I step out of my car, even before I stick the orange and white cone on the hood and pray that the traffic cops give me a break in my no-parking parking spot. Here is what I see: men pouring sand into a three-foot-deep cut along the sidewalk, cones along the length of the site, a few trucks, a yellow backhoe, a tamping machine that vibrates with a noise like a helicopter, a machine for cutting pavement, a mound of red gravel to go atop the tan sandbox sand, the crimson flags of the flag men. And a crew that works incredibly hard as I stand there, a clipboard-carrying inspector.

Random literary fragments float through my head. Baudelaire supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for never being bored. Samuel Johnson: If you’re bored of London, you’re bored of life. John Berryman wrote

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.   
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,   
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy   
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored   
means you have no
Inner Resources.’

I shift my feet. Look up. The pears are coming into bloom.

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My mind drifts to the most famous pear tree in New York history, the one planted on Third Avenue and 13th Street by Peter Stuyvesant on his colonial bouwerie, the verdant farm that lay far uptown from the Manhattan city center at the foot of the island. ‘Tis said he was nostalgic for his homeland, and an imported Dutch pear sapling gave the aging ex-New Netherland director the succor he needed in his retirement. The tree survived 200 years as the city grew up around it, bearing fruit until its last season, after which a wayward horse-drawn wagon struck and killed it. This was 1867.

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The people of New York City mourned, and the stump was preserved for many years – the New-York Historical Society has a fragment in its collection. Now there’s a plaque on the building. That a tree could inspire such devotion is remarkable. I can’t help but think about some of the people I come across on the streets of Brooklyn or Queens, who run up to me asking breathlessly if the city intends to take down their tree – hoping to see it gone!

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A man of Stuyvesant’s stature with a big old country estate probably had many a grove of fruit trees. By chance, this was the only one that survived. Still, this dray-destroyed pear tree became the iconic tree of the city, of which the scraggly specimens on 10th street are but poor simulacrums.

I have one job here, really, on 10th Street, when it comes right down to it. In the trench beside the ginkgo, a root six inches in circumference protrudes from the tree side, stretching to the other side.Who knows where that muscular, healthy root winds up. It might head down to the bowels of Manhattan or crack someone’s cellar wall. In any case it is bringing in nutrients that allow the ginkgo to survive. Here I am, not a trench digger or a trench filler or a pipe fitter, but the sole saviour of this root. I have to convey to the men working how vital it is that in their efforts to fill the trench they don’t harm this essential piece of the tree in any way. I point at it, explain, plead . At one point I actually see a guy vault over the root, landing on it with his workboots. No, no, no!

Eight hours focusing on one ginkgo root.  I’m already bored. That’s not so bad.

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Cutting Loose

We were in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan, me and a pruning crew. It was frigid on this second day of spring, and you could see all the charcoal shadows stretching out in front of the big apartment buildings before the sun saw fit to rise fully. Going from tree to tree, all of them honeylocusts with threatening looking bristle-burrs on the branches, I noticed how people had appropriated the “furniture” of the sidewalk – the trees. In the branches I saw, to name just a few things,  strings of Christmas lights, green garlands, icicle streamers, a Lean Cuisine mini pizza box and a sign that read “MOVE 100 dollars 24 hours.”

The rice and beans are tasty in this lively neighborhood but there is a pervasive sadness, with trash blowing down the streets and many empty storefronts. I saw a dozen beggars, some of them deranged, most of them asking for 50 cents.

The head pruner on the job, who was also the head of the landscaping company, graced us with his chainsawing skills. And he was good. He transformed more than one ugly duckling tangle of trunk and branches into a cinderella honeylocust. He joked that his next career was going to be as a hair stylist.

We went up and down Broadway nipping and tucking overgrown trees. The street was set for new asphalt and the milling machine had to have room to move along without getting hung up on branches. The son was there too, an awkward guy in his mid twenties, having been doing this job, said his father, “since he was two.” I wasn’t sure what piece of the job he did when he was two. Standing with me, he admired his father’s handiwork as he stood up in the bucket with his saw roaring. “So hard to do an elevated cut without lion’s tailing,” he commented, and I nodded sagely.

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A banner across the front of a school caught my eye: “None of us is as strong as all of us.” The limbs of the trees rose from the trunks like a chorus of spring.

Later, on a break, the father bent my ear about clients who want him simply to top a tree to reduce its size. “I would never do anything to harm a tree,” he emphasized. “I can justify every cut I make.”

I like the idea of justifying the cuts you make. The first cut is the deepest, as the song goes. Are the lyrics actually about pruning a tree?

The son had just told me something critical about another arborist who works for the company: “Every cut he makes is perfect, but he is just too slow.” Of course I’d rather be slow but perfect, but I didn’t say anything. The young guy is fast-fast-fast, in his twenties after all.

After the job was over I picked up my car at a garage, standing next to a ruddy faced young man in a yarmulke holding a gigantic bouquet of red roses. We were shifting our feet impatiently as the garage took its time bringing our cars out to us. He spoke to me. “I’m getting engaged tonight,” he said. His name was Dan. On the assumption that his girlfriend would say yes, he had arranged an engagement party for the evening, with friends, music, food, dancing. I asked if he was pretty sure she was going to say yes. “We’re Jewish,” he said, “We talk a lot about these things in advance.” He didn’t have a ring yet, he told me. There would be time for that. Now he had to go home and change his shoes, if they would ever produce his car.

I hope Dan and his betrothed make many perfect cuts together. Not too fast, either.

 

 

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“I Like Trees, but…”

“Cut ’em all down, babe, cut ’em all down!” The man called out to me from his bicycle as I stood by a tree in my orange vest, taking notes on my clipboard about a giant white oak standing between the sidewalk and the street. Not the first time I’d heard this sentiment expressed, but always disappointing.

“It’s too high and too many mosquitos come into my room,” one woman complained about the specimen outside her window.

Three guys stood around a driveway on a mild March afternoon, shooting the shit. “Little things come off the trees and make a mess,” said the man with the pushbroom, clearing the gutter of maple twigs that had fallen in the recent rain.

“Can’t the city get us some little trees instead of these big ones?” asked his friend.

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Sometimes, rolling up on a big old black locust, the kind that casts its welcome shade all summer, the resident of the house behind it runs out: “Are you taking the tree down?” Not aghast at the prospect but delighted and hopeful that “their” tree would disappear. “The sap drops all over the tops of our cars,” I’ve heard.

Two times recently, in Queens and in the Bronx, I saw maples that had been girdled. Someone had stripped a wide circle of bark from around the trunk’s base — a technique for killing a tree.

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But why? Trees protect from the sun, they pour out oxygen to breathe, and on top of it all they’re beautiful to look at. Wouldn’t you like to have a statuesque linden in from of your house? But, but… trees are messy, with their litter of acorns dropping on the roof,  the pom pom london plane seed balls scattered across the sidewalks. If you walk barefoot when the sweet gum seeds come down the prickly pods would cut your feet!

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Ouch! But who walks barefoot in New York City?

Someone has to rake up the perfect leaves of the pin oak. What a pain.

I’m sorry, but if you can’t manage it I will.

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Pruning the Urban Forest

Going out to nurture the trees of New York City has given me plenty of surprises, not the least of which is the number of species to be found alongside the urban curbs. I was out in the snow recently to help put together a site survey, and I was blown away by the patterns and textures of the trunks we encountered — grey and furrowed, yes, but also yellow or red, with scruffy bark or horizontal lenticels that were dramatic gashes. When I used to think of trees it was mainly their leaves that appealed to me, green and elegant or the colors of a sunset. Now, having entered the urban forest to count specimens and prune them, I’m especially in awe of their stature, their trunks and branches naked, undisguised by the leafy canopy that usually cloaks them.

Here is an item I wrote for The New York Times Metropolitan Diary column which was published today.

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Goodbye to All That Merchandise

Today was my last shift at The Somewhat Fancy Ladies’ Clothing Store. No, I was not fired. My tenure as seasonal sales associate concluded in the same way it always does, at the end of winter, with the bright smocks and palazzos of spring entering the shop in dozens of boxes, and fewer and more pennypinching customers visiting to plump up their wardrobes. I am now extraneous.

So goodbye to fringed wool jackets, lace-edged tops and “girlfriend jeans”. Goodbye to daily sales goals and meeting the weekly plan. So long, Swiffer lint and the glint of bobby pins in the rug. Adios, the mask of makeup. Certain customers, I’m glad to see the back of you. You know who you are. On the other hand there is the man yesterday with wavy grey hair, kind eyes and a nose on him, who, passing by, saw the striped blouse in the window and knew it would look great on his wife. It would be a surprise. Husbands do the darndest things, I learned at the store. (Mine recently baked me a welcome-home cake, so there.)

I bought too many clothes with the seductive employee discount. Didn’t need any of them. The store was itself seductive, an explosion of color and texture that sometimes felt like a riotous dream. I felt trapped there sometimes, bored out of my skull, and at other times deeply fascinated by the intricacies of selling that dream to women and the rhythms of commerce. I think I learned more about modern American reality (something I usually do my best to avoid in my writerly life) from working there than any other experience I’ve had.

Today I left with one purchase, deeply discounted. A pair of earrings.

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Why do I like them so much? Well, what do they resemble? Nothing so much as glitzy acorns. A pair of earrings, a minimum wage souvenir, a transition, a talisman.

I’m going to prune trees in Queens tomorrow, the start of another season. Lipstick will not be mandatory.

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The Best Vacation

I came back from Arizona to find that The Orphanmaster had appeared on a Top Holiday Reads 2016 shortlist on line by Co-operative Travel in the UK. The 18 authors included were asked to describe their favorite vacation in 140 characters. What’s funny is I had been spending mine, along with hiking and sunbathing,

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reading historical fiction, which I cite as the finest kind of holiday in my quote. You can find all the books and writers here.

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A Conversation in Snow

You should see how I look in summer, he told me. Not from the beach. Dark just from being up in the branches.

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Today there were driving snow showers in Queens. The tree pruner and the arborist hid from the cold for a while in the cab of the landscaping truck. He chainsmoked Newports, I warmed my fingers in the blasts of warm air from the windshield vents. He smokes up in the bucket too, wielding his saw at the same time.

When you prune a tree, you write your name across it, he told me. You have to be able to stand by that name. Out the window we could see those crazy old maples, the ones whose bark glints chartreuse with moss in the sun, now outlined in fresh snow. He had trimmed trees in much worse conditions, he said.

Sitting there, we listened to a radio show that scolded about climate change. The tree pruner never studied his art, he said, he learned by observation. Was I a Republican or a Democrat, he asked. He thought the two were basically identical, that the system was rigged. Was I a 9/11 truther, he asked. He was.

I was bundled like an Eskimo. He wore a windbreaker. He knew all the trees by their bark alone. He called london plane trees l.p.’s. After 25 years in the business, he had no pension to retire with.

Sometimes he looks back on his tree climbing days, he said. He was hired to scale mammoths, reporting back on infestations of Asian Longhorn Beetles, in Crocheron Park in Bayside, Queens. Sometimes he misses going up with the other guys, way high up, above it all, where they would play cards in the branches and drink soda and joke around, hitting each other with things.

He hopped out of the cab. A woman had come from her house in the snow to get his attention. He spoke to her briefly then hopped back in. She told me she was ninety-two years old, he said. That’s a life, said the pruner.

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A Snow Day for Books

Looking out from my desk over the sleeping swamp, the filagree of snow on reeds, globs of it hanging off the magnolia tree.

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I’m off of both jobs today and have the luxury of nothing to do but laundry and cooking and dishes. Oh yes, and writing book reviews. NPR Books is the loveliest employer because it lets me self assign and my editor is no slouch. I have a stack of seven books awaiting me on the coffee table, lined up for spring. I’ve gotten a kick out of the Clothing Store and I love being out on the streets with the trees, but literature is my heart.

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