Snowy Egret 62(2): 13-19. Autumn 1999
by William R. Stimson
Mine is a front apartment on the third floor. Out my window, across the street, is a park. Behind the park, a line of brownstones. Atop one of these, a penthouse I can see right into because its whole north wall facing my apartment is one huge picture window. In that penthouse lives a shapely blond who peels off her clothes in the hallway, in full view of the window. She'll often stand right in front of the big window talking on the phone stark naked — fully exposed to the park, the street, and all the apartment windows like mine.
When her husband is at home, none of this goes on. He's a short squat unattractive balding man — some sort of corporate executive I would guess by the amount of time he spends away from home, and the fact they are never there on weekends.
Before I decided I wasn't going to buy into this woman's game anymore, and gave my binoculars away to my sister, I spent quite a bit of time with them, looking out my window. Binoculars in a city are amazing. An inaccessible bird perched on a bare branch atop a tall tree becomes close and intimate. You can study its every gesture. It's easy to spend a long time looking. The foliage of the trees in the park and back yards become lush cascades of greenery. For an instant you can forget you're in the city.
As I was peering into the trees one day with my binoculars, I discovered that there was one honey locust tree off in the corner of the park, up against the tall back fence, that was being strangled by a run-away Wisteria vine. The vine, that seemed to be planted in the back yard of one of the brownstones, was covering the fence and had gotten up into the crown of the tree. The poor tree was almost completely covered over by the vine that was suffocating it by taking all its light. Only one new branch of the tree was still free. It reached high above the rest of the crown towards the light, as if it were struggling to outpace the rapacious creeper. With my binoculars, I could make out the first insidious green tendrils of the vine working their way up that last free branch.
Over the months I kept a sporadic eye on the honey locust and its losing battle with the Wisteria. Winter came and went. The leaves vanished and returned. By the next summer, the vine was proliferating all over the last remaining branch. The tree was a goner. It's last stab at light, and hope, had been foiled.
The park was a schoolyard during the day, closed off to the public. After school and on weekends, a man named Tito unlocked it and opened it up for neighborhood use. Tito, a quiet aging full-bearded Puerto Rican who wore a Fidel Castro hat, was the super of one of the buildings down the block. He was the don of all the Puerto Rican supers up and down the block. They all deferred to him. Thus it had fallen to him to be the caretaker of the park. On one occasion, some kids were doing drugs there. He went over and unceremoniously locked them in. They didn't come back. Tito sat stationed atop a low wall in front of his building, where he had a good prospect of the whole street — and an excellent view of the penthouse with the blond.
After Tito opened the park one afternoon, I walked over to take a closer look at the strangled tree. Seen up close, the tree's plight was much more pathetic than I had imagined. Sure enough, the vine came over from the high fence. It had huge anaconda-like coils, as thick as my arm, winding up into the crown of the tree. Many of the branches of the tree had lost most of their leaves because there was no light. The whole crown of the tree was a mass of dead branches, mostly vine branches that had died as the vine grew higher and higher with the tree, suffocating not only the tree, but also its own lower growth.
A Puerto Rican custodian at the school tended to the maintenance of the park. I came down one day when I saw him sweeping up out by the sidewalk. "You see that tree…" I addressed him in Spanish, pointing.
He gave me a dismissive look and then cast a cursory glance in the direction I was indicating. He didn't stop sweeping.
"You see the lighter green leaves of the vine, how it's covering over the tree," I pointed out. "The vine is killing the tree. Somebody has to cut it."
The custodian had an attitude like he was being approached by one of those crazies you find in the city. They come towards you and start talking about something that doesn't make any sense at all. Before you can find some excuse to pull away from them, they've already gone off somewhere else. I knew for a fact the word with the Puerto Ricans on the block was that I was a bit on the loony side. "Esta loco," I heard one of the Puerto Rican kids playing in the park explain to a newcomer one day as I was doing my kung fu exercises there. For a long time I pondered why they might think this. And then one day, after I'd returned from a short trip, Jose, the Puerto Rican super, commented "I wondered where you were." He added, "I didn't hear any talking coming from your apartment."
"Talking?" I asked, not understanding.
"Talking to yourself," he laughed.
It only struck me what he was talking about when I was half way upstairs. I often talk out loud when I'm writing, pronouncing phrases or sentences as they come to me — out loud. I write them down like someone taking dictation. And then, at other times, as I'm taking a shower or going about the apartment doing chores, I have developed the habit of giving a voice to vague feelings that rise in me on the spot, spontaneously. Some people have to go to a psychologist to find out their hidden feelings, or work with dreams. I have found that it's just as efficacious, and very useful for a writer, to let feelings speak for themselves, to give them a voice — out loud, with words of their choosing, and with a diction and an emphasis that is of their own making, not mine. It's a fascinating practice, especially for someone like myself who has had so much trouble discovering his own voice as a writer. Once when I was in the kitchen right by the door, engaged in doing this, the doorbell rang. I opened the door immediately — so immediately that I surprised Jose, the super, standing right there. "Talking to yourself!" he laughed, a bit taken off guard, as he handed me a package that had come for me.
The supers of almost all the buildings on the block were Puerto Ricans. They conferred amongst themselves on the street, exchanging information about the various residents of the different buildings. They had a story, or a "take", on almost every one. Each had a personality, some defining characteristic. Each was associated with some telling episode. I don't think any of these busy new upscale people suspected that they were so "seen", so visible to the Puerto Rican underclass of the neighborhood. They came and went, oblivious of the Puerto Ricans. But the Puerto Ricans saw them. The Puerto Ricans saw everyone and had their own way of seeing them. I was privy to this because I speak Spanish. The way they saw me was that I was "loco." And the custodian looked at me that way as I tried to explain to him that the vine was going to kill the tree unless someone cut it back.
"The vine is pretty," he said, like someone talking sense against gibberish. Then he turned away and continued with his sweeping. It was no use. I knew I had to take things into my own hands.
A few days later, I walked down two long city blocks to Kove Hardware on 6th Avenue. I always feel overwhelmed in a hardware store. There are so many tools and different gadgets and devices. I grew up without a father and don't know what any of these things are for. I waited in the line of plumbers and repairmen, supers and housewives. When my turn finally came, I told the man behind the counter I wanted to see their selection of clippers. Before my mother divorced him, my father had been a horticulturist trying to start his own Hibiscus nursery in Miami, Florida. Clippers were the tool of a nurseryman. My father always walked around with his stainless steel chrome clippers jutting out of his rear pocket. My earliest memories are of him sitting before the muck pile, his prize clippers in hand, snipping Hibiscus cuttings in the scorching Florida sun. When I was in high school, I held down a job working in a nursery after school. I carried my own clippers then. I carried them jutting out of my back pocket. That was a long time ago.
In Kove Hardware, I tried out all the different kinds of clippers they had and chose the most expensive one — a pair of clippers my father would have been proud of. All these years struggling to be a writer, trying to do something I was so inept at; and finally I had a tool in my hands I knew how to use. The man offered to put them in a bag for me. "No," I said, jutting them into my back pocket. I walked out on the street feeling strangely taller, even proud — like a cowboy with his gun.
"Back at the ranch," I got an old aluminum ladder out of the basement and trotted it over across the street. Orchids had been my hobby when I was a kid in Cuba, where my mother took us after she divorced my father, and I'd scrambled up untold numbers of trees of all kinds searching for wild ones, collecting them, planting them in the trees around my house, checking on them, watching them grow. But the moment I stepped off the wobbly old aluminum ladder from the basement and clambered up into the honey locust tree across the street, I felt how many decades had gone by. I was in my late forties. I had glasses. I was wearing clothes that weren't suitable to climbing a tree. I knew what to do in a tree, but it was an old knowledge. Or rather, I had grown old, so that the knowledge came new to me again. I was surprised at the hesitant expertise, the cautious deliberation, that came out of nowhere as I sought out one sure foothold after another on my way up into the crown of the tree. I climbed and I snipped. I snipped and I climbed. Propping myself securely in the branches, I pulled and yanked long streams of vines. By the time I was finished and got down again on the ground, the whole area under the tree was strewn with a thick layer of vines, living and dead. It was one huge tangle of greenery and vine branches. I left it like that so that the custodian might get a hint of what needed to be done. I knew the job wasn't finished — but I was. Out of breath, my arms exhausted from holding on, climbing, pulling myself up and letting myself down, and with scratches all over my arms and hands, I folded the ladder back up and retreated.
The next day I looked out of my window. I hadn't made a dent on the vine. There wasn't one little piece of it that was wilted or killed. I knew I had to go back and get those anaconda like branches that had been much too thick for the clippers. I'd take a saw. Meanwhile Jose stopped me in the hallway, "Eh," he said ominously, "Was that you that did that to the tree over in the park."
"I didn't cut the tree," I corrected him. I knew perfectly well what I said to Jose would spread through the Puerto Rican network on the block. "I cut the vine that was killing the tree."
"I don't know!" he pronounced, not exactly buying into my subtle distinction. "They asked me who it was. I didn't say anything… You better stay away. That's the 'school' property. The man is angry."
Rummaging around in the basement when no one was looking, I found an old rusty saw that I thought might work. This time I waited until Sunday when nobody was around. Looking out my window, I made sure the coast was clear. This time I put on sweat pants so that I could climb around in the tree more gingerly. I slipped the clippers in my pocket, dashed down to the basement for the ladder and saw, and emerged onto the street. With a quick glance to the left and the right to make sure the coast was clear, I hurried across to the park.
This time I did a number on the vine. The rusty old saw cut right through the huge twining trunks of the vine up in the tree. I sawed them up in chunks, unwound them from the tree's branches, and threw them down. Then, finished with the saw, I threw it down. From where I was perched I could see the tendrils of the vine were growing up into the tree from all along the high fence. I had to get on the fence to really cut back the vine. But the fence was too far away.
I spotted a limb that jutted out over the fence. The idea went through my head that, if I hung from that limb I could work my way, hand over hand, over to the fence, balance there and let go of the limb. Then I could crawl along the fencetop snipping the vine at its source. Otherwise I'd never make a dent against the vine because it was everywhere in the high branches where I couldn't possibly reach.
One glance down to how far the ground was below caused me to immediately dismiss this crazy notion. The next moment I was dangling from the branch, holding on for dear life, and working my way over, Tarzan style, hand over hand to the fence. I couldn't believe I was doing this.
An instant later, I let myself down, a little unsteadily, right atop the fence. Perched precariously in the growth of vine along the top of the fence, I started clipping away. I was alarmed to find there were electrical wires strung along the top of the fence. One inadvertent clip into these and I would be immediately electrocuted. It occurred to me, perched up there atop the electrical wires, holding on for dear life lest I lose my balance and tumble off the tall fence, that maybe the Puerto Ricans were right. I had to be crazy to be doing this.
"What you doing?" a little voice called out just at that moment. Hanging on for dear life, I looked down. It was a little Puerto Rican boy standing amidst the strewn heaps of vine on the ground below.
"I'm clipping back this vine on the fence," I answered in a manner meant to be instructive to him.
"Why are you doing that?" he then inquired in a tone that rather expressed what I myself felt at the moment.
"Because it's growing up and strangling the tree," I answered.
"Oh," the little boy said, and then, content with my answer, drifted back to play with his friends.
I worked myself all the way down the fence like this, not knowing if I'd be able to turn around and get back to the tree, because as I went along I was clipping back the very vine that was giving me a perch atop the fence. And if I did get back, I didn't know if I could balance myself enough on the fencetop that I'd clipped bare so as to stand up and reach the branch overhead that could get me back to the tree. In other words, I wasn't sure I could get down.
When finally the job was finished and I'd indeed got safely back to the ground, I surveyed the huge mountain of lianas under the tree. I was all scratched up again and sore but there was a strange and wonderful current going through me again — something I hadn't felt in a long time. I put the clippers in my pocket and began, as best I could, to clean up the mess this time. I stuffed all the trash baskets in the park full of the lianas and the refuse of the vine. I went across the street to the basement of my building and got some of my super's black garbage bags. The rest of the vines I stuffed in those. I set the filled bags out by the curb.
The next day I looked out my window. All the pale green covering the darker green crown of the honey locust was withered in the hot sun. This time I'd gotten the vine. The tree would live.
A day or so later I became aware that Tito was eyeing me with darts of disapproval as I went over into the park to do my kung fu exercises. When I came back into my building, Jose accosted me, "You better watch out," he threatened. "That man say, 'Why doesn't he leave the tree alone!'"
"I didn't cut the tree," I insisted again, making myself clear through Jose to the whole network of Puerto Rican community-keepers on the block. "I cut the vine that was killing the tree."
Jose looked askance at me, as if he was considering whether it was worth his while trying to make sense to a "crazy".
"That man," I lashed out without thinking, in answer to that look, "is ignorant!"
Jose was visibly taken aback.
"He has no schooling," I continued, "He doesn't know. I have a doctorate in botany. I know about trees. I know what I'm doing."
Jose said nothing. He didn't know what to say.
"They would have to pay somebody a lot of money to do what I did," I went on. "I'm doing it for free. They're lucky to have someone like me here in the neighborhood to do that for them!"
It wasn't just Jose I was talking back to. I was being who I was in the place where I lived. Finally, I had somehow cut my way out from under something that had been strangling me all these New York years. I felt naked and free, standing there in my sweat pants with my clippers jutting out of my pocket — blatantly and unabashedly exposing myself, like the blond in the apartment, to Tito, to Jose, to the street, to the whole world. This was who I was. I was on my ground. The voice that spoke through me rang true. There was no way I was backing down. I turned and walked upstairs.
Jose just stood there silent. "I don't know…" he mumbled ominously at length. He didn't sound too sure of himself. I didn't look back.
The next summer the damned vine was in the tree again. The pieces of writing I worked on were starting to get finished again. I was sending them out. A month went by. Then two months. Then the summer was gone and it was the beginning of Fall. The leaves were still on the trees. The offending vine was rank by now in the crown of the tree. When I went over and checked it out, I saw the clippers wouldn't really help this time. The vine was coming by way of another tree in the back yard across the fence. I didn't know what to do.
Then one day, a week or so later, I saw some tree surgeons at work at the seminary down the street. They had a saw atop a long pole. I knew I'd found my tool. I went and asked if I could borrow it. "No way!" the man answered.
I took some money out of the bank and went down to Kove Hardware again. When I told the man behind the counter what I wanted, he seemed interested, like someone had finally challenged him. He led me back to the rear of the store. Hidden away in a corner, propped behind some other things, we found a single saw like that, atop a long pole. It cost $45. Besides the saw, there was a clipper at the end of the pole that I could use by pulling a long rope. It turned out perfect. Climbing up in the tree again I reached up with the long pole and trimmed off the high vines coming over from the other tree in the back yard. From my window the next day I saw the vine covering the crown of the tree wilt again and die.
And so I had that pole saw propped up against the wall in my apartment, taking up space, waiting for the vine. About that time a garbage truck backing up by the curb broke a big branch on the tree in front of my building. The sad branch just hung there for days. Finally I brought my saw down and severed the thing nicely near the trunk. As I was doing this Jose the super came out. We exchanged comments of complicity about garbage trucks and the damage they do by not being careful. When I got the broken branch down, he brought out his own saw from the basement and cut it up in pieces and put it in the garbage.
I talked with him as he worked and then took my pole saw back up to the apartment. I got that feeling again, of the current running through me. My arms were sore later in the day, as were my neck and shoulders. The branch had been big and the muscles I used in sawing it weren't ones I normally used.
It was only then I started noticing, as I walked to work every day, the broken branches on the other street trees up and down the block. A few days later, I got the urge and hauled out my expensive pole saw — figuring I'd get my money's worth if I used it at least once more. I went out and neatly trimmed off a few of the branches the trucks had mangled. One of the Puerto Rican supers materialized out of nowhere. I kept sawing away.
When I stopped to rest my weary arms, he stepped forward to touch the saw and feel it. Then he asked if he could do it a while. "Sure!" I said. He finished the job for me. Another one of the supers came over from across the street. He had a tree over by his building that needed fixing. We all went over there to do his tree.
A few weeks later I was doing my kung fu exercises in the park when some of the Puerto Rican kids came over and asked me to teach them how to kick and punch. And so I started a little class right there and then and instructed the children in the rudiments of the front thrust kick, and the forward punch, etc. A day or so later a different Puerto Rican super from down the block came over and thanked me for teaching his kids.
I noticed around this time that Tito started looking at me differently. He doesn't talk much but once, when I nodded to him, he got this twinkle in his eye and nodded back.
When I go down the street, there's always a cluster of Puerto Ricans on one of the stoops or hanging out around some car. One day, without any warning, I was surprised to realize one of them had said "hello" to me as I walked by.
I stopped and turned around. "Hi" I answered back, smiling broadly.
The faces of all of them lit up.