The Great Crabapple War of 1974

“You’ll be dead soon.”

crab apple

Crabapple – a hard, bitter monstrosity. 

Not quite red, not quite green. Not quite sure where it fits within the grand scheme of all elements nature.

God had to be pissed off at the planet one day and said – “Look what I can do!”

Crabapples are a permanent fixture on the island of misfit fruits.

Wait: I’m not even sure it’s a fruit.

If you’re the unfortunate target of nature’s musket balls especially when hurled by 10-15 year old boys with arms fueled by mischief and sticky thoughts of 16 year old summer blondes in tube tops and denim cutoffs – then start counting the seconds from the sting until a perfect-round red welt appears somewhere on your exposed body: 1.2.3.

Worse than a swarm of yellow jackets turning a bare ankle into a hive.

A crabapple tree is nature’s ugly stepsister. Branches hang low enough to tear open the face of anybody adventurous enough to venture near its trunk.

At the ends of imperfect extensions hang clusters of green-reddish spheres. Oh, beautiful species of crabapple trees do exist. I hear they produce magnificently colorful flowers.

The abomination on the corner of Whitney Place & McDonald Avenue in Brooklyn was an exception. Oh, it tried to bloom. As kids, we messed with that poor tree so much, I believe it never had the chance to be left alone long enough to flourish.

Clearly, the tree wasn’t right.  Why was it allowed to live in misery? It managed to survive in the middle of a squared patch of dirt among a jagged brown and green glass compost blend of discarded beer and Coke bottles. Amazing.

Imprisoned by the apartments’ tenant garages on one side and an F train subway artery on the other, the only natural sunlight available to SadCrab  was high-noon sun filtered through elevated rail slats of the subway line anchored by massive steel beams that were driven deep into McDonald Avenue.

Unfortunately, the tree appeared to be half in this world, one root in hell. The blooms were sparse. Short-lived for a couple of weeks in early spring. The fruit appeared ‘halfway’ developed as if it were reluctant to make an appearance.

I’d walk by the thing every day and grimace.

One day I stopped. Stared with disdain. Shouted in its branches  – “You’ll be dead soon.”

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that ugly tree deserved respect. Just the fact that I remember it so well and how it contributed to the great CA wars is surely credit to its existence. I can’t be the only one who remembers the depressed crabapple tree.

The Great CA Wars switched on and off for a couple of years. I have no idea what triggered it. I was just recruited. Sloan and Whitney Place kids pitted against each other through the greatest (probably the only), crab-apple skirmishes in Brooklyn.

You see, Sloan kids were perceived as rich. Ironically, we were all part of the same alphabet swirling around in the same socio-economic soup bowl. Yet, Sloans were deemed the high brows. Lower-middle class “1 percenters.”

Although the apartment complex on Whitney was a mirror image of the red-bricked three-story structure on Sloan, the exterior was the envy of Whitney folks. Freshly painted exterior bordered by robust bushes and flowers. Sloan was the king, baby. Parents and grandparents sat outside on actual folding chairs. Whitney? The stoops.  Poor Whitney. The interminable ugly step building. Dead grass, chipped lead paint (great for snacking).

See, you existed on Whitney, you LIVED on Sloan. There was a difference. Even the spring air on Sloan carried with it a spiced aroma. Joyous floral scents that sliced through an otherwise musty urban atmosphere.

So, what do boys do to vent frustrations? Establish borders, place the crabapple tree in the neutral zone, collect massive quantities of bitter musket balls and get ready for ALL OUT WAR! What else?

And war it was. Hundreds of nature’s pellets scatter shot through the air like an unripened mob of bloated bees.  Sloan on one side. Whitney on the other of a street selected as official battlefield.

Street-parked Chevys, Fords, Buicks served as Detroit’s finest foxholes. Elongated hoods and doors – trademarks of 70’s autos, remained under assault for a solid 30 minutes. Metal was no match for the onslaught. Several car surfaces were reduced to pimply apple-hailstorm fodder.

Hundreds of crabapples suffocated the street. Injuries took kids out who ran crying and fleeing from the scene. After a couple of hits in the back of the head and the bitch of  a sting from a smash to the cheek, I’d was out of Dodge, too. The wars weren’t long but they were painful. Eventually, we lost interest. Even angry ones. The Generals. They bailed on the troops. Or if I recall correctly, somebody’s mom screamed for Paulie to get the hell home for dinner ( remember – moms’ voices carried for 20 city streets).

No winners. No resolution. Yet of course, Sloan army always believed THEY WON. And that is indeed a win, isn’t it? Even when you lose, you win? Unfortunately, the only medals we had to show for the effort was a stripped bare tree, welts and boys who were about to catch hell for damaging property.

That darn tree lasted longer than any silly war and every next generation of kids who were raised, grew up, moved away.

I figured the tree took my words to root. Died years ago.

At the least, I assumed the owners of the buildings cut it down. Why would they allow it to live?

Life is funny – Little did I realize…

8 Random Thoughts (from a crabapple tree):

Every day decide the “how” to survive.

Life is hard. Learn to live with what you got. Work to thrive in the perfection of your imperfection. I have. Even when brats picked me clean. You can too. No excuses.

Used or ignored – a bit of both? You’re gonna be there.

There will be a time when people will want what you produce for their own selfish purposes. Then you’ll go ignored. Stand strong. Brace for any condition. Bloom when the weather feels right to do so again. Understand that most who cross your path are temporary.

A life can grow from anything. Even broken glass.

Growth emerges from beauty or ugliness. Born wedged between an F train and a concrete wall  – or in a soil rich patch of zip code, all of us seek the basics to stay alive. Appreciate our common ground: Love, food, water, maybe happiness (if you’re lucky).

Don’t assume I’m miserable being what I am.

There’s a reason I exist. Even if it’s for boys who write of me 40 years later. I’ll stand with dignity and serve my mission. I don’t owe you an explanation for my mission. I’ll win my battles quietly – behind the scenes. Under your radar, I will prosper – despite what you believe.

You have the right to produce bitter fruit.

You don’t need to be joyful all the damn time. It’s not human. It’s not for trees either. Happiness ebbs and flows. Life happens. Bad situations arise. In turn, you will bear cynical fruit. Revel in sorrow a bit. Not too long, though. Eventually you’ll find a way to bud flowers. If I can, you can.

Mock me, mock yourself.

Mock the ugly in me? You’re not in acceptance of the ugly in yourself. Swallow that bitter crabapple.

Who’s got it worse?

You assume I’m sad. That’s because you cannot relate to me. Just like I can’t relate to how you pack into that F train subway car like a human sardine the same times twice every day until you die.

I’m alive. Are you? 

Four decades ago you said I’d be dead soon.  Let me ask – Who’s closer to death? Me or you? How do the odds appear now?

Thanks to Google Maps I know that crabapple teacher is indeed, still alive. Despite my nasty words, it didn’t die. It wasn’t cut down, either.

Today, that tree has a high chain-linked fence around it to protect it. Not sure why.

Maybe to prevent another crabapple war. Highly unlikely. Kids don’t play outside anymore.

Maybe it’s to protect branches from boys who at one time, liked to climb that gnarly trunk. Nah. Boys don’t play outside anymore. Frankly, I’m not sure boys are allowed to be boys anymore.

Perhaps this tree got the best of me. Perhaps it’s more protected than I’ll ever be. Maybe today, based on how the world has changed, it stays safe and thrives behind a barrier. Guarded from jerks.

There’s a great chance that tree I mocked so long ago, outlives me.

My daughter wants to visit my old neighborhood when we visit New York in December.

I may just show her that tree. Tell her the story.

Ask her to visit that tree once I’m gone.

Just maybe the greatest lessons that tree taught me were empathy and irony.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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