Friday, November 26, 2010

The Urban Forest Has Returned


As I’m nearing the church. I hear a voice behind me. “Hey, I was there,” he says, “Forbes Field, I was there...” And I realize I’m wearing my Forbes Field jacket that Jim gave me for my 60th birthday last year. The baseball field I grew up with. The one with the “unique configurations.” There’s an older guy with white hair and a scruffy beard. “Yeah, they tore it down like the Polo Grounds. I saw it last week. Saw inside the University of Pittsburgh building where they have home plate. Yeah and outside, on the sidewalk, they have a marker where Mazeroski hit that fuckin homer. Broke my heart...I was ten years old...” And I was eleven, I think. That golden October moment in 1960, in fifth grade when the Bucs came back in the bottom of the ninth to beat the majestic Yankees, when I came to believe that anything can be possible, even at the last moment, even in the bottom of the ninth...I need that now..

He tells me how surprised he was with Pittsburgh’s clean air, clean waters. Sure, I say, all the mills are gone. We talk about the three rivers that meet there. And he recalls an Abbot and Costello routine about that. “Almost as good as who’s on first,” he says. And I keep seeing Yogi looking over the wall as Maz’ homer goes out. Yes, I need that...

* * * *

It’s a gray, wet raw day. One of my favorite days of the year. The day after Thanksgiving. The day the urban forest returns. Overnight, as if by magic, corridors of trees spring up along Amsterdam, Broadway, Columbus. Corridors of green smelling of northern forests. They will remain until Christmas Eve then disappear again.

The Christmas tree business around here is controlled by two rival Quebec cartels. They vie with one another over who gets what corner. The trees are shipped down from Quebec and an army of young Quebecois encamp on our streets for a month selling trees.

In years past, when we were fully operational, I took it upon myself to get to know the tree people who would set up across the street from the church. I’d offer them coffee, a place to shower and a restroom. There were a couple of guys who were here three years running. One was a musician. He’d come into the church and play his music on the piano in the sanctuary. The night he brought us our family tree, he played piano in our apartment and my son Micah accompanied him on the bass. On Christmas Eve, after our service, I would always bring them coffee and hot cider, a candle from our service, and wish them well for their middle of the night drive back to Montreal in time for Christmas dinner with their families.

Since we’ve been closed, I haven’t gone over. Felt I had nothing to offer. This year that will change.

George is back on the steps again with even more stuff. I wonder if he’s permanently left his apartment or this is just a holiday visit. I say, “Good morning, George, how are you?” “Good,” he says, “and you?” He’s never asked before.

I ask him if he did anything for Thanksgiving. “Like what?” he says, “Where would I go?” “Goddard-Riverside?” I ask, “their dinner?” “Listen,” he says, “you don’t know nothin about the hands that prepared that food. What you might get. What your system might not handle." And he’s off on a lecture about food. How if I tried to feed my grandfather what I feed my kids he’d think I was trying to poison him. About the breakdown in our autoimmune systems. The phoniness of vitamins at health food stores. Holistic healing, alternative medicine. The poisoning of the earth by agribusiness. He’s read books, heard talks. I tell him about my recent visit to the farm in Nicaragua, a country rich enough in resources to feed itself but starved by soil depleted of its natural resilience, the loss of seeds that are natural to the tropical environment. “That’s Monsanto,” he says, “motherfuckin Monsanto. That’s domination, colonial fuckin domination.” And he’s right.

I walk across the street. There’s a young man in the shelter by the tree stands. I introduce myself. Tell him I’m the minister from across the street. He says he’s Francois. This is his third year to come here. I apologize for not having come by the last couple of years. How we’ve been closed. The water damage issue. He tells me he’s looked up the church online, read its history, followed the landmarking issue. “Old things need to be taken care of,” he says. I ask how he likes his coffee.

The I go back across the street and ask George how he likes his coffee. He looks at me. Asks how big the coffee will be. Then I go into Barney Greengrass and get three identical coffees with milk, two sugars. George, Francois, me.

I give George his and go back to Francois. Ask where in Quebec he is from. “Oh, no, I am a franco-ottawan,” he says. And he tells me of his regular job in checking out stakes and claims in the Yukon. How the winter there is too much, but the summer’s beautiful, midnight sun and turqouise (he says

turkwaz) waters. I welcome him back and tell him I’ll be seeing him around.

I go back, lock up. Say goodbye to George. He’s still encamped on the steps. I’m worried about him. I call the Reachout team. Their phone goes direct to message. I want to leave a voice-mail about George. The mailbox is full.

I have my own worries.This is all good but I'm aware of the $100,000 we have to raise by mid-January. I’m waiting for Maz to come to bat. It still feels raw. Walking up the street, I feel almost good. The urban forest has returned.

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