I had nothing to do today so I decided to take myself to an afternoon movie. The theater I prefer isn’t near my apartment so it requires a trek downtown, a sacrifice I’m willing to make. It was the sort of summer day when the wafting scent of sun-warmed tar on the streets reminded me of the balmy afternoons I spent at Six Flags as a teenager. Standing on the subway platform at Times Square waiting for a connecting train, sweat slithered down my brow as Billie Holiday sang a slinky song in my earbuds. I wiped the sweat onto my shorts while continuing to read my book, M Train by Patti Smith. On a workday, this stagnant sweaty station would annoy me, but today, my commute became a vacation unto itself, allowing me to fully disappear into the vacuum of other people’s words both written and sung.
Once I was off the train at Union Square, I was reminded how summer in New York arrives with such aural fanfare. Hare Krishnas with buzz cuts and head microphones jingle their bells near the statue of Ghandi, a girl on a bullhorn shouts about the current administration’s disdain for immigrants and an ice cream truck’s midday lullaby echoes between the buildings down the avenue. I take it all in, letting it take me away as well. The East Village–once the wardrobe-passage to a gritty Bohemia–still works its “Old New York” charms on me. It’s an escape into a fabled corridor of the city that holds a very specific place in my heart. It’s where I first explored nightlife–dancing until morning under the spinning colored lights alongside models and TV stars. It’s where drag queens and protestors and pastors and fashion designers sit side-by-side at Thai restaurants. It’s also one of the remaining parcels of the city where it feels like artists are still quietly changing the world in their tiny sixth floor walk-ups. The neighborhood served as an escape from my daily life; it’s both modern and immovably classic. Standing outside the movie theater, I bought two Thor comics on the street in exchange for a 5 dollar bill. An atypically cool July breeze rustled the comics on the table, sending Captain America and Wolverine into the wind. Both heroes were saved by the human manning the table, an irony I loved even if its poetry was only inside my head.
In my neighborhood uptown, summer means parks filled with kids, teenagers playing basketball and families setting up card tables on the sidewalk for curbside picnics–all similarly scored by the melodic lullaby dings of the Mister Softie trucks doling out misshapen Spider Man ice cream bars with gumball eyes. When I first moved to Harlem, the sight of a grill on the corner of Broadway and an extended family of twenty eating burgers and dancing to the music of a parked car caught me off guard. But after watching them, I realized it wasn’t all that foreign to me.
As a teenager, I’d eat dinner with my friends every Sunday night after church. Many times, we’d caravan back to my parent’s house and set up camp in the front yard. With music playing from one of our cars, we gossiped about the backslidden and vented about our choir director who wore her insecurities on her sleeve. We ate take out, swatted away mosquitos and talked through our doubts about God or faith or ourselves–things we were afraid to vocalize within the judgmental walls of the church building. To borrow a Christianese word, we fellowshipped. Spending a summer night eating together outside in a seemingly random place, we weren’t all that different from the family grilling on the corner of Broadway.
I’ll admit to having a complicated relationship with summer because I was raised in Texas where the sun is an abusive oppressor. He slowly climbs into the sky each day in full broiler mode, cooking everything too slow to get out from under his reach. At noon, at the height of his daily reign, he dumps unforgivably on The Republic, cracking its land, drying up its lakes, dehydrating its football players and raising its electric bills. It can be relentless and the oven stays on preheat between the months of May and October, only cooling down during a thunderstorm or under the green sky of a tornado warning. Though in New York the trapped summer heat ricochets off the skyscrapers and roads and large tourist groups from Utah, it holds no comparison to the naked scorching heat of a swampy Texas summer.
Yet as a kid, I don’t remember viewing those hot sticky months in that way. School’s out so summer equates to freedom and the feeling of freedom is far more powerful than the feeling of being hot outside. Summers in the suburbs meant using the water hose to create waterfalls, laser beams or mutant ooze. It meant sucking on the honeysuckle that grew through our neighbor’s fence, trying to pick the flowers without bees inside them. It meant bike rides that lasted hours, rollerblading in circles in the cul-de-sac and exploring the tree-covered hills along the shady far side of the duck pond. But mostly, I loved the summer because I spent the majority of it in the air.
Our backyard climbing tree was the stuff of myth. The wood looked gray in the light, a fair color compared to the other dark-hued barks in the area, and the top branches fanned out with lush green plumage. It was the sort of tree a school kid would draw; symmetrical and vibrant. From its sturdy base, large limbs reached outward like elephant trunks pointed to the sky and within them, my siblings and I each had our spots–our preferred nooks from which to rule over our suburban fortress in the air.
As idyllic as a clear blue sky was for climbing, my favorite time to be in our tree was during the first siege of a thunderstorm. Sitting in my nook between two thick branches as the wind began to blow was an almost euphoric feeling. I was in every natural disaster movie I’d ever seen–living inside an adventure–and as they swayed, the branches carried me with them. It was as much a thrill ride as any rollercoaster. Inevitably there would come a point when the wind became too strong, when the rain started to slap me in the face, and that’s when I needed off the ride as fast as possible. Much like Dr. Grant and Tim racing down the tree in Jurassic Park, frantically trying to out-climb the falling Jeep, I’d hurry down, swinging from branches as they scratched and pawed at my baggy denim shorts. Unfazed by their pokes and jabs, once I was at safe height I’d drop out of the tree. Under the dry safety of the patio cover, I’d take inventory of the tiny scrapes on my arms and legs, the places where the tree tried to keep me and almost won. It was all part of the tenuous risk of climbing so high and the raw palms and scraped knees were merely elementary battle scars; signs of a fight well fought. I loved that tree.
Two decades since we moved away from that house and a decade after my communal Sunday nights in the front yard with friends, I was back in Texas for my brother’s wedding. It was the last weekend of summer, the calendar only days away from switching over to pumpkins and scarves, and I’d decided to carve out an hour for myself the day before the wedding. With a Sonic limeade in hand, I drove across town to the city in which I’d spent my childhood. I revisited my grade school and my junior high, wandered around the duck pond in the sun and made my way to the house with the perfect tree.
My trip down memory lane wasn’t an impulsive one. Bored and fidgeting with my phone one evening at home in Harlem, I entered my family’s old address into Google Street View, curious what the house looked like today. It looked the same, albeit smaller than it seemed when I was young, and as I digitally wandered around my childhood neighborhood, I saw my tree standing as tall and magnificent as it ever did. That’s when I decided to steal away for an hour; to revisit my old cradle of imagination in the sky.
Turning into the alleyway, I looked for the tree on the horizon but couldn’t find it. I felt a knot begin to form in the pit of my stomach, a knot that grew with every passing driveway. When I pulled up to the back side of the house, I didn’t even recognize it at first. It was only because I recognized the neighbor’s house that I could confirm it had been ours. I saw the yard and the patio awning but the tree was gone. The current owners had removed it.
I was hurt, as if the tree’s feelings were my own, and it felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I drove past the house fearing I’d look like a creep just sitting in the alley staring at their yard, then pulled into another driveway a few houses down to turn around. On my second pass by, it felt as if I was looking at the backyard through the translucent ghost-outline of the tree that’d once been rooted there.
I’m aware it was a tree and not a person, but I grieved its death nonetheless. It was a facilitator, a place where our imaginations carried us away. It became our spaceship, our high rise building, our trapeze above dinosaur infested waters. In our spots, we were free to dream far beyond the horizon and we felt safe even though our feet dangled high above the ground. It became a wondrous private club to which only we had the keys and I mourned its inability to be that port key for any more kids.
When I snapped out of my disappointed daze, I was able to notice the lumps in the ground; grassy Whoo-hillsides that formed a circle around where the trunk had been. It was like an altar, a perfectly round knobby circle, comforting in its simplicity. It was Stonehenge, a lingering mystery to everyone except those who’d been there to see it in all its glory.
The tree being absent wasn’t the picture I sought that day. I expected to see it standing tall in the late summer sun and I’d wax poetic about each branch and climbing spot of my youth. I imagined my trespassing would have a much taller and more leafy pay off, but that’s the risk of searching for the past, we may not find exactly what we’re looking for. I was about to pull away from the house when I had a fairly uninventive after-school-special sort of realization. The roots of that tall tree couldn’t be totally ripped out of the Texas soil; it would always leave an impact on that yard. Similarly, the tree I remember is still perfectly grown inside of me, its impact immovable.
No matter how that yard physically changes, to me it will always be the place where our tree–our beanstalk, our holodeck, our superhero hideout, our wardrobe entrance to other worlds–could take us anywhere we wanted to go. Now in New York, trees are still filling me with wonder. Wandering through Central Park as the leaves change each fall, I see kids climbing in the technicolor trees, laughing while being chased by imaginary robots or Stormtroopers or aliens. That fills my heart with gladness because I know there’s nothing better than a day climbing trees and seeing how high your sense of wonder can take you.
The Lorax said, “I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.” Well I guess I speak for them too. For the vibrant fall trees in Central Park who act as civil servants to any child lucky enough to see or climb them. For the trees in Harlem providing summer shade for a weekend family barbecue. But mostly for the world’s most perfect backyard tree–the one who filled my life with wonder, propped up my imagination, and allowed me to escape within its sturdy branches.