The Liquor Store Bag In The Tree



Neighborhood: Upper West Side

It’s been there for almost three years now. I first noticed it on a bleak January morning as the lifeless branches of the tree across the street from my front window swayed in a wintry wind. At first I thought it was a large bird. After all, raptors had been spotted down the block in Central Park. But as I sharpened my focus I saw it was an ordinary black plastic bag, the type liquor stores use to stash your booze. Someone probably overshot the Doe Fund barrel on the corner, and a strong updraft propelled the bag into the highest branches. And there it has remained at eye level, fluttering like a pirate’s flag in the distance. It makes me nuts!

I will tell you that the tree is a beauty. But you will probably say all trees are beautiful, and with thousands of them in the park, what’s so special about this one? Well, for one thing it‘s a survivor of the first order. Countless dogs and a few drunks have relieved themselves on its roots, oversized trucks have munched on its lower branches, and on a Sunday morning about twenty years ago, a post office truck crashed into it after having been fatally broadsided by a yellow convertible running a red light. This tree has seen it all.

This stately specimen is as wide as it is tall. It reaches up to the 5th floor of the 30’s Deco building across the street. In summer, it also stretches out to shade both buildings on either side of it’s massive trunk.

I worry that one of these days the widest branches will dip so low, that an over-reaching Traffic Department worker will cut it down. I remember what one miscreant did to the century-old wisteria vines behind the band shell on the Mall. He claimed he was just following orders (you’ve heard that before, right?); I say it is arbor-cide and the bastard should have been fired, and then incarcerated. I hold some pretty strong opinions about tree killers.

All winter I had high hopes that a heavy storm would do the trick to get rid of my nemesis. I didn’t think it could possibly survive this past winter, its third I might add. When in January a mini cyclone roared in from the west and mowed down over a hundred trees in Central Park, I rushed to my window with full certainty that the black bugger had met its doom. But no, it appeared more tattered than ever, but tenaciously holding on.

Right now the earliest buds of April have appeared, and there is a faint, green haze beginning to color its branches. Before you know it, new growth will obscure the smallest twigs and partially conceal this ugly annoyance. Then one day next October, a brisk breeze will shower the tree’s tiny golden leaves onto the cars parked out front. And I’m willing to wager that the goddamn bag will still be there! It will probably outlast me.

Why should I care? What difference does it make in my life? It’s only a bag trapped high in an old tree across the street. But when I’m sitting at my front window with my first cup of morning coffee, ready to greet the day with renewed optimism and the joyful hope that it might bring, my eyes zero in on that carbuncle of a bag waving at me, that irksome flaw in my urban view mocking me. It whispers: “I’m still here. I survived the night. So sorry to disappoint.”

I could choose to accept the immutable reality of it, and take the Buddhist view. What I regard as a blemish on my tree is precisely what makes it perfect. What I see as imperfection is perfection. The tree is perfect. My view is perfect. The black bag is perfect. Let it be. So says my more enlightened self.

But I realize I’m not that enlightened. What I am is offended. The bag’s presence bugs me the same way dog poop on the sidewalk does, or half-filled soda cans left on a bus seat. Think about it the next time you’re out on an errand and you feel your shoe sliding in something soft and pungent. Then try to tell yourself that the sidewalk is perfect; that the existential crisis some clown’s negligence has caused you is perfect, that your shoe is now perfect just the way it is, and so is the putrid cloud surrounding you. It’s all so perfect. Shall we just let it be? Shall we?

I’m an orderly man, not compulsive, mind you, but I do like things to be the way they are intended to be. I don’t care about color separation in my sock drawer or having my shoes all lined up on the closet floor like a row of clean-cut army recruits. But I expect theater curtains to rise promptly at 8, The Times to be at my door by 9, and my Social Security check to post by the 3rd. So is it too much to ask that a tree remain unadorned unless it’s Christmas?

Every night before I crawl into bed, I settle myself at my front window to go over the day and clear my head. The city has slowed, fewer trucks are flying down Columbus Avenue, taxis are scarce, and only the occasional customer hits up the ATM in Chase’s lobby across the street. It’s a Hopperesque scene at the 3 Star Diner on the corner where night hawks roost before hitting the road home. Tommy is outside taking a cigarette break, leaving Jimmy to keep an eye on the cash register while he sets out napkins and greasy flatware for the early crowd. A young couple is having an animated conversation over their cooling cups of coffee. It’s a peaceful scene with the sound off, one that is played out nightly with few variations. For me it’s very calming; the city tucking itself in for the night.

Then my sleepy gaze shifts a few doors east to my beautiful tree. Its new leaves rippling in the late night breeze, and there it is, that waving bag, laughing at my hopes that sometime before breakfast, it will become somehow dislodged. I pray a miraculous wind will strike at its most vulnerable spot, so that by morning it will be gone, annihilated, forever disappeared.

But as I take my first sip of morning coffee, without even looking out the window, I know it’s still there, more tattered perhaps, but still there entrapped in tiny branches, quietly signifying its unshakable presence, and flipping me the bird.

Sam DeFazio is Manhattan-based writer currently working on a collection of personal essays entitled Bi-Coastal Disorder. For the past four years he has studied with Mindy Lewis at the Writers Voice. He is a former-actor who appeared in several television series and movies from the early 1970’s until the late 90s. Among his credits are TAXI, THE JEFFERSONS, DALLAS, and LAW AND ORDER. Sam taught on-camera acting for many years at NYU’s School of Professional Studies, AMDA, and THE ROCKPORT FILM AND VIDEO WORKSHOPS in Maine, as well as in his private workshops.

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§ 4 Responses to “The Liquor Store Bag In The Tree”

  • Frank C. from Utica says:

    I can relate, though with different object.
    Some things are just plain eyesores, burrs under a saddle, and nerve racking distractions from what
    is otherwise a beautiful display of mother nature at her best.

    Sam….flip it the bird right back.
    That bag is winning….but it hasn’t won.

  • john lollos says:

    A perceptive observational essay by an enlightened writer. A moving note to the city he loves.

  • What a thrill to see your story in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. I loved the picture you painted of the tree and its inhabitant and the surrounding neighborhood. I guess you can be happy it isn’t sneakers.

  • Isabel Berney says:

    What a great, true New York story. I learned a new word, “arbor-cide,” and particularly loved the glimpse into the diner. It brought back old memories of living on the Upper West Side. Looking forward to reading more.

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