A Winter's Tale
Written by
Niki Tulk
September 2013
Written by
Niki Tulk
September 2013

It is still summer (just) and perhaps an odd time to remember an afternoon last winter, when the sky was what I will always remember as metallic North Jersey grey, echoed in the concrete and cheap siding of the houses in a Union City side-street.

Nobody does Ugly as well as northern New Jersey. Ugly done in a fascinating, strangely compelling way. Power lines tangle in masses like uncombed hair atop the long necks of telegraph poles, wires string and tumble the streets at bird flight level. Moribund pigeons, as a consequence, gather in nervous strands on the window sills of industrial buildings and roofing. The streets transition unevenly from road, a cracked hump border and then pavement, strewn with knobs of spit, gum, and an endless harvest of cigarette butts. Here is the land of shift-work, unemployment and extended families crowded into small dwellings, so the streets are also alive. Men and women of all ages wander, smoke in groups, haul small children and wheel carts of groceries. Along the main retail stretch (the place names punch and blunt: Bergenline, Hackensack, Guttenberg, industrialized syllables bank, clunk, crack) windows crowd with cheap electronics and sweatshop fare. Small jitney buses  weave (on occasion, with tragic results) through the streets, and emit clouds of black smoke; each breath induces diesel, frying oil and the ubiquitous “dust and dander” of my (daily) pollution alert. It feels literal to steel oneself here  — or maybe one is steeled by the place: the thick and filthy air, the gritty energy and edge of the accent, the economic desperation that those across the river on Park Avenue ( those running the country and siphoning off 85% of the wealth) don’t want to see.

I recall again that winter afternoon. Dismal, glazed grey light, urban America pungent with garbage and laundry soap. I trudged towards Bergenline and the post office,  a letter to a faraway friend in my hand.

Now, in folk tales it is at this point that a miracle occurs, a small jewel in the dust. The dust and dander. I turned down a side-street where several saplings clutched their roots into square gaps in the concrete pavement. One had grown to a grand 10 feet, and here, in the gray hum, came the miracle.

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