Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly … survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it. —Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
There is a very beautiful tree growing on West Eighty-third Street. You don’t notice it at first; it sort of blends into the walls and the weeds growing around it. I didn’t notice it for many years. And then one day, a flash of red catches your eye, and you look closer and see it isn’t a bit of plastic bag or a dead balloon or a Coke bottle or any of the urban flora one grows used to. It is a ripening plum. And then you see that there are many of them, dozens of them, and if you look very closely, you could, in that moment, be anywhere in the world. It’s next door to a church.
This is what it looks like:
I was so excited by the glory of it that I brought a friend to see it. “It’s uplifting,” I said. “It’s perfect.”
And then we reached the tree, and there the fruit was—all ruddy and incongruous. And we looked up and we saw this:
This was all the sadder for its sense of terrible inevitability. I almost wished a serpent would appear; I’d have bruised its stinking head so hard it wouldn’t have soon forgotten. We laughed about it; that was New York for you. That’s what innocence got you.
I wandered back later in the day, plucked a fruit, and brought it home to rot. Nothing much happened. After all, what were they going to do to me?
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.