A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Turned out the man at the bar
was a neighborhood guy;
grew up around here,
back in the day.
He and Tim got talking
about the bad old days,
before “Bed Stuy, Do or Die”
was a motto on a teeshirt.

This guy recalled when no-one’s block
had trees, no green, no spot of shade:
They had ‘em before, he said,
then for some reason they cut ‘em all down,
no one ever said why,
City just showed up one day
and that was that.
When some years on they put them back,
skinny saplings propped up by stakes
like training wheels for a bike,
the kids watched them grow.
“And you just knew,” he said,
“Those trees were not meant for you.
A tree was your enemy.
‘Cause every inch that tree grew,
your ass was one inch closer
To getting pushed outta the ‘hood.”

Pink Tree, Art Guerra, E. 4th St. & Ave. B, 1980, photograph by Philip Pocock
Pink Tree, Art Guerra, E. 4th St. and Ave. B, 1980, photograph by Philip Pocock

I think of Lillie Mae in 442 Greene,
who’s seen it all in her eighty years,
her bronze skin still smooth, pulled taut
over her cheekbones like the scarred
mahogany lip of the bar, burnished
by hardship and her austere God.
On the street one day Miss Lillie told me how
Kids on this block tried their darndest
to kill hers; her new tree, that is-
how they stripped its leaves
by the fistful, gouged its bark,
snapped its branches
until it bled sap,
like their hostage in a game of war:
Cowboy among Indians, Cop among Robbers,
or some gang rival straying on their turf.
“I prayed on that tree,” Lillie said,
shaking her head,
“Oh Lord, how I prayed on that tree.
And you know what? It came back.”
We both stood and shook our heads,
as if we were both wise.
I couldn’t fathom then
how kids could hate a tree,
hate it with such wantonness, too,
but maybe now I do, a bit.

And the trees grew tall, City trees,
Lindens, Gingkos, Sycamore,
shimmering and glossy in drought, breathing exhaust,
throwing oxygen out like a street-corner taunt.
Today Miss Lillie’s Bradford Pear
is raining white blossom and stinking of fish.

What happened to the kids, I can’t say:
if they were uprooted, or cut down green;
how far their seed was scattered.
In the Black Swan, whiskey flows;
the talk takes another turn
before my husband thinks to ask
the grown man at the bar
whether or not he still hates trees.

-Charlotte Jackson