A Tree Dies in Brooklyn

Photo: Meathead Movers. CC-BY-SA

Arriving in New York 1995 I drove the not-quite-as-big-as-a-semi truck into Park Slope, Brooklyn after midnight. The trip had started four days earlier in Seattle.

Miraculously I found a parking spot big enough and walked to the apartment that Karen and I had rented a month before, where she was already residing. I found it without trouble and was soon sleeping an exhausted sleep.

I awoke at 6:00 AM with a start. I wondered if I had left the truck, containing everything I owned, in a legal parking space. In the dark I quickly dressed and left the apartment without disturbing Karen. When I got to the truck I found I was in a tow away zone. I fired it up and began looking for a better place. I fruitlessly searched for an hour, looking for a space big enough for three Cadillac sedans. I parked in two apparently safe places only to find the no parking signs cleverly hid behind foliage.

As I turned a corner, I saw a semi-truck pulling away from the curb ahead. I pulled into the space that it had left behind. I heard a bang. I stopped. I looked at my passenger side mirror and noticed that it was cockeyed. I decided that the bang was from it hitting a tree. I stepped on the gas but the truck wouldn’t move. I thought I was in a hole. I gave it more gas and it began inching forward. I heard a scream from across the street. I looked and saw a woman with a horrified look on her face. She yelled at me “Do you know what you’re doing? DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING? YOU’RE KILLING THE TREE! YOU’RE KILLING THE TREE!”

I stopped and got out of the truck. A tree was leaning on it at a 30 degree angle. Or more correctly, the tree was leaning in front of the truck, still contacting it, but it hadn’t been pushed far enough to topple over. The large bang I had heard was the top corner of the truck striking the tree. The reason why the truck had moved so slowly while I revved the engine was that it was slowly uprooting the side walk and pushing the tree over. I quickly surveyed the situation. It was not a pretty sight. It looked like thousands of dollars of damage.

It didn’t appear that the tree was actually leaning on the truck, but was still supported by its roots. Even if it fell down it didn’t look like it would hit anything. I decided to back away from the tree, watch it stay right where it was, and leave as fast as I could and hope that the horrified woman hadn’t written down my license plate number. I got back in the truck and started the engine. I looked behind me. No traffic in sight. I looked ahead of me. No traffic in sight. I was just about to ease out the clutch, hoping for the best, when a man’s face appeared at the side window. It was the face of a cop. I eased my foot away from the clutch. He made a circular motion with his finger for me me to roll down the window. He said “Don’t you know how to drive a truck?” I said “I drove it fine for the first three thousand miles”. He said “Get out of the truck and show me some ID.” I shut off the engine and prepared to meet my doom.

I handed the cop my driver’s license and truck registration. He walked toward the back of the truck studying them. I followed him and took a better look at the damage. There was plenty. In being pushed over, the tree’s roots had broken at least 60 square feet of the sidewalk. Big pieces of concrete jutted up from damp earth at crazy angles. It looked like a meteor had struck the base of the tree. I tried to add up the cost of the carnage. They’d need a crane to push the tree back into place. A crew to repair the sidewalk. Repair work to the truck. I watched my twenty grand nest egg disappear before my eyes. The cop started to again berate my driving ability and stopped. I must have looked like a beaten dog. He said, “Ah, it’s not that bad.” I tried to smile. It didn’t work. I said “How much do you think it’ll cost to save that tree?” He didn’t miss a beat, “That tree’s dead!” he said.

He went on to tell me that the parks department had been called and would be along soon. I wondered how long that would take. I pictured us waiting patiently beside the truck for several days. In Seattle a board would have to convene and appoint someone to take care of the mess. All efforts would be made to save the tree. I asked him if I could go around the corner to my apartment and come right back. I didn’t want Karen to wake up and worry when she found me gone. He kept my bona fides and told me to not be gone long. I found her still asleep and left a note. I returned to the truck.

The cop made small talk with me and assured me that park department help was on the way. I didn’t believe him. I took another look at tree and said to him “I think that tree would stay right there if I drove out from under it. Could I leave?” He chuckled, “Maybe it would, but we’re not going to find out.” I didn’t have much to do so I started pulling things out of my pockets and examining them. I looked at the key to the truck. It had a bit of orange pasteboard about the size of a business card attached to it. It contained all of the driving instructions that had been given to me by the rental company. I looked them over. The last one warned to be extra vigilant near the end of the trip because “A majority of accidents occur on the last day.” I could attest to that. Karen appeared with coffee, pastries and dry socks. She tried to assure me that things weren’t that bad. I thought of my friend Pat’s saying “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” Karen left me with my gloomy thoughts.

Within an hour a muscular man with a shaved head drove up in an ancient, mostly green Jeep. He was wearing cut-off jeans and a tee shirt. He spoke briefly with the cop while surveying the situation. He was from the parks department. He pulled the jeep up alongside the truck, pulled a chainsaw out of the back, climbed up on top of the Jeep, and nimbly leapt onto the top of the truck. He paused for maybe thirty seconds and then fired up the chainsaw and started cutting. Within an hour he had the tree reduced to two-foot lengths of stacked wood. He pulled some saw horses out the Jeep and placed them around the hole. He connected them with yellow caution tape. He drove away. I couldn’t believe such efficiency from a bureaucratic agency. The cop gave me back my papers and told me I could leave. He hadn’t written me a ticket. I assumed it would come in the mail, along with the bill. I carefully drove away.

On pins and needles I waited and waited for the ticket to in the mail. I finally biked to the police station. There I was told there was no record of the killing of the tree and I could rest easy. It was fully a year later when I was telling a friend about the event. He told me why the cop did not write me a ticket. He explained that I had every right to pull into that parking space. It was the fault of the city that the slope of the road and angle of the tree made it hazardous. He said the cop didn’t want to let me think I was in a position to sue the city.

Darn, I just thought miracles happened.

Categories History

Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.

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