The Great Crabapple War of 1974

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“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Christmas Tree Story: What is Yours?

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vintage five

Businesses don’t put up Christmas trees anymore.

And maybe that’s one of our problems.

Well, some do. Unfortunately, trees are so rare, I usually do a double take when I see one. Halt in my tracks just to gawk. Nostalgia neurons burn cobwebs, fire hot in my brain. I haven’t ruled out how nostalgia is a real thing for me. Christmas trees stir childhood curiosity and just a touch of joy. Since Christmas ornaments only witness daylight once a year, the memories they keep, the stories they tell remain fresh and raw for what feels like an eternity.

A Christmas tree is a universal beacon of warmth and hospitality. To me, anyway.

Home life in my youth was turbulent. There were consistent, life-shattering surprises. Security was not on the reality list. However, there were a few things in my life back then I could always depend and one was the variety of trees proudly showcased in business plate-glass and urban apartment windows that made up a tiny happy segment of my world.

I became an observer. A Christmas tree aficionado. vintage four

Trees tall and short, ragged and rich. All proud in display.

Ornaments that adorned real pine, plastic, and even aluminum where the tips stealth-sliced your fingers. Shiny baubles seemingly proud to reflect and bend colored twinkles . Lights that that stick around, never to be extinguished In my mind. The beauty refuses to burn away.

Stories behind these trees and their artifacts were all too real. You see, those trees, along with the stuff straining branches, represented a shiny bright in time, now passed (past).

Some memories joyous many sad.

A forever marriage that didn’t survive the trip, a grandparent long dead yet fondly represented, a son never to return from some shit war, an ended relationship marked by a forever ornament that testified to a love date-stamped on a Hallmark artifact.

You see, Christmas trees are a yuletide 23 & Me.

Wandering excited through the west side of Avenue U, a lower-middle class strip, hodge-podge of small business and family-run establishments in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, NY on the Friday after Thanksgiving, is a fond memory of childhood.

When I think about the 4 city- block walk to the avenue, my eyes would dart frantically from one house and apartment window to the next, searching for a featured tree. In my mind, every window framed a story. Testaments to love, tradition and household stability. I mean what could go wrong when you had a Christmas tree in the house? In my imagination, these sentinels guarded against bad things. String lights scared away the darkness; ornaments full of plastic and glass preserved love so strong, evil spirits wouldn’t dare to trespass.

vintage three

So, as I walked in focused lockstep, moved forward fast to Taverna’s Department Store, in anticipation of a cordoned Christmas fantasy land at the back of the store.

Along the way the trees. So. Many. Trees.

On the corner of West 2nd Street and the avenue, stood Sal Manna’s Shoes. During the year I hated that place. My mother would drag me in to purchase Easter shoes every year. The entire ritual of sitting in a row of seats, having my foot placed in a metal vice to determine size, trying on stiff patented leather shoes and Sal pressing down diligently on a big  toe to figure out the answer to the mystical question nobody ever could answer – “how long before he outgrows these Buster Brown torture devices?” was never a happy time.

However, Sal had one of the finest trees in the neighborhood; it was one of the few times I could walk into his establishment withhold a feeling of foreboding and fear for my sole.

“Mr. Manna, what a great tree.”

“Thank you!” Big smile.

I’d walk up to it and gently handle the ornaments. I expected to him to scream at me “DON’T TOUCH!” but he never did.

He walked to me and started to tell me the story behind the tree. I can’t remember it all but from what I recall it was the first tree he bought for his store years back as finally things were going well (thanks to all the Italian moms who believed Jesus wouldn’t resurrect unless their kids had new shoes).

He was proud of what the tree represented for him and his family – prosperity, security.

Random Thoughts:

Never forget the stories behind your tree. Those stories represent who you are; they stir a feeling you felt long ago. Old ornaments breathe new life into the good things from your past that are forgotten the rest of the year. Even if the stories are sad, they now go down like a fine bourbon – in 5 seconds you’re overwhelmed by warmth.

Your tree is alive all year. Even when stored away, even when you skip years of extracting it from a cardboard tomb, the memories never die. Nor should they. They are you. Who you were, who you are, who you always will be.

Maybe what’s wrong with society is we don’t erect enough trees. Not enough trees, not enough memories, All selfie, no story. No tree in the heart, no element of humanity.

Our trees are dying every day.

Vintage two

So what’s your Christmas tree story? Can you remember it today? Can you keep it tucked away and put it up when you need to feel love, warmth and security?

vintage one

Businesses don’t put up Christmas trees anymore.

Perhaps there’s a good reason.

Or maybe we’ve all just lost yet another ritual that brought us together.

Can you feel the joy again?

In this moment like a last moment?

Can even the sad be cathartic?

Try it and see.

It’s fine to be surprised by feelings that are unpacked and adorned for all to witness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have Kids? 4 Ways to Save Money: 4 Ways Dave Ramsey gets it Wrong.

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“Money is more than money, sometimes it’s memory.”

I’ll never forget the March day in 1973 when the birthday gift from my parents – a new lime-green Schwinn 10-speed with a prism-like banana seat (complete with black double-stripe down the middle) was stolen from outside the Brooklyn neighborhood toy store – Cheap Charlie’s.

green schwinn

I believed I did all the right things to ensure my prized possession was secured tightly to a small tree.  It was in my line of sight; no matter where I was, even checking out stacks of Hasbro Colorforms’ boxes at the back of my favorite five and dime, I could glance out the large plate glass windows and observe some part of the bike’s beautiful, clean lines.

Padlock checked twice. Pulled on the lock again, just to be sure I wasn’t fooling myself that the bike was secure.

It wasn’t enough to keep this new birthday purchase from disappearing.

Looked up from the new GI Joe Adventure Team play sets and in less than two minutes the bike was history. I bolted out the front door, looked around, up and down Avenue U as fast as my head could turn and eyes would dart.

mummy tomb My favorite!!

Nothing.  How did the bastard get away so quickly? Oh yeah, he was on wheels.

How do I now tell my parents the expensive gift that surprised me three hours earlier was now history?

Recently, Dave Ramsey or his people (he’s big time, he has people), wrote an article that rubbed me the wrong way. Usually, I agree with the information that Dave provides however, this piece (link below) inspired the line about money linked to memory.

10 Ways We Waste Money On Our Kids.

The Ramsey article was the catalyst to re-live a painful life episode from over forty years ago.

What happened after the incident was memorable, too.  In a good way.

And I’ll never forget.

Back to Dave’s article: Used bikes, no hamsters as pets – Made me grateful to not be a kid or grandchild under the Ramsey roof.

Is there a balanced approach here so rodents can still scurry through colorful Habittrail tubes in happy homes?

I think so.

habitrail I bet Dave would hate Habittrail (too expensive).

Let’s break it down.

Here are 4 ways to save and 4 areas where Dave Ramsey is way off the mark.

 Random Thoughts:

1). Go used or reused. I don’t believe our money has achieved the maximum return on thrift stores or consignment shops.

Thankfully, the stigma of shopping at a Salvation Army is dying; perhaps it’s the disappointing economic recovery where much of the middle class feels like the Great Recession never ended. Recently, my daughter and I went shopping for a winter week-long trip to New York City and found some astounding cold weather wear deals at a neighborhood place that sells gently-used teen clothing. Check out www.thethriftshopper.com for a national thrift store directory and a shoppers’ forum where all topics thrift are discussed.

2). Arts and crafts fun not boring. Crafting dollars still go a long way and what a method to engage your child in a family creative endeavor. I know it sounds old school, however some of the best returns on memory I have with my daughter is the Halloween and autumn-related crafts we did at home. We finished multiple joint projects including fall wreaths and small sentiments for family and it was short on cost, long on satisfaction. Sign up for Pinterest and investigate fall craft ideas. I was floored by the number of inexpensive DIY Halloween projects.

3). Get tricky. When I was a kid I drove my mother crazy because I was only interested in popular name brands of food. I was a sucker for television advertising. For example, I would only eat the bacon with the Indian head profile complete with full headdress, on the front of the package – can’t recall the name now. Of course, it was the most expensive and as a single parent household, mom was on a tight budget. I still remember catching her placing a less popular bacon in an old package of the brand I liked.  Come to think of it, I think she did this often. I recall on occasion my Lucky Charms not having as many marshmallows. Oh the shame! She was attempting to trick me. As I age I realize I’m fine with tricking children. Buy the Frosted Flakes, keep the box and replace with the generic brand to save money. Today, less expensive brands are tough to tell apart from the premium ones. Try it.

4). Don’t miss the forest for the trees. Visit local venues first. This time of year many autumn fairs pop up at farms, places of worship and even retail parking lots. Peruse the local fair festival guides in community impact newspapers and take inexpensive journeys.  It’s a great time to have children select and prepare fresh vegetables and fruits available from local vendors.

The stuff Dave Ramsey is saying is a waste may not be to you because money is not just a medium of exchange, it purchases long-term lessons and memories of places and people long gone.

So, despite what the Ramsey group says:

1). Get, or if you can, adopt a pet. The hamster or whatever suits your family. My hamster Benjy lived five years. Yes, five years! And he taught me great responsibility and love. He brought happiness and accomplishment to my life as a nine-year old. I thought he’d live forever. I taught him tricks. He chased my mother around our tiny Brooklyn walk-up (an added bonus). Dave says no Benjy. I’m sorry, this advice is wrong.

2). Say yes to movie tickets. Ok, you don’t want your six-year old to see The Equalizer, I get it. Although my father took me to The Godfather when it first hit theatres and Sonny getting converted into human Swiss cheese at the tollbooth affected me for years, there is a bonding experience between parents and children at the movies. So, you sit through Little Fluffy Bunny Finds a Carrot or whatever kids’ flick is playing. Take your children to the movies. Splurge on the overpriced candy and popcorn.

3). Yes to electronic games, too. My friend Jordan Shapiro, professor, teacher, author, contributor to Forbes and modern-day Socrates would advise you that electronic games can teach children much about life and ignite cognitive development. There are many ways to save here – plenty of gaming systems available used and in great condition, especially at pawn shops. I spent hours with my Batman coloring books; I agree crayons have a place in kids’ rooms, however, I don’t see how electronic games are a waste of money.

4). Buy the kid a new bike for gosh sakes. There’s nothing like the thrill of a new bike for a kid. All the adventures ahead – the feelings of freedom. Nothing but priceless. My head is reeling thinking about the places I went on two wheels.

Ah, so you’re wondering how I had so many great adventures when my bike was stolen the same day I got it.

Well, when I called my father from the kitchen Trimline phone crying hysterically, he immediately left work in the middle of the day (which only happened twice during my childhood),  and drove me to Frank’s Schwinn Shop on East 6th Street and bought me an identical replacement.

He said it wasn’t my fault.

On his deathbed, while he lapsed in and out of a coma, I whispered in my dad’s ear, reminded him about how I was grateful for him. And that damn bike episode. How it changed my life. He was there for me through a traumatic event.

It’s unfortunate when financial types become so successful they forget what money is truly all about. It’s “eat your vegetables, don’t have fun.”

No it isn’t.

“Money is more than money, sometimes it’s memory.”

So screw that advice.

remember moments