A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith


There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. In grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows 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.

SERENE was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a saturday afternoon in summer.

Late in the afternoon the sun slanted down into the mossy yard belonging to Francie Nolan's house, and warmed the worn wooden fence. Looking at the shafted sun, Francie had the same feeling that came when she recalled the poem they recited in school.

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and hemlocks,

Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,

Stand like Druids of eld.

You took a walk on a Sunday afternoon and came to a nice neighborhood, very refined. You saw a small one of these trees through the iron gate leading to someone's yard, and you knew that soon that section of Brooklyn would get to be a tenement district. The tree knew. It came there first. Afterwards, poor foreigners seeped in and the quiet old brownstone houses were hacked up into flats, feather beds were pushed out the window sills to air and the Tree of Heaven flourished. That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people...

Oh what a wonderful day was saturday in Brooklyn. Oh, how wonderful anywhere! people were paid on Saturday and it was a holiday without the rigidness of a Sunday. People had money to go out and buy things. They ate well for once, got drunk, had dates, made love and stayed up until all hours; singing, playing music, fighting and dancing because the morrow was their own free day. They could sleep late--until late mass anyhow.

On Sunday, most people crowded into the eleven o'clock mass. Well some people, a few went to early six o'clock mass. They were given credit for this but they deserved none for they were the ones who had stayed out so late that it was morning when they got home. So they went to this early mass, got it over with and went home and slept all day with a free conscience.

For Francie, Saturday started with a trip to the junkie. She and her brother, Neely, like other Brooklyn kids, collected rags, paper, metal, rubber, and other junk, and hoarded it in locked cellar bins and or in boxes hidden under beds...

Francie walked up Manhatten Avenue reading aloud the fine-sounding names of the streets she passed: Scholes, Meserole, Montrose, and then Johnson Avenue. These last two avenues were where the Italians had settled. The district called Jew Town started at Seigel Street, took in Moore and McKibben and went past Broadway. Francie headed for Broadway.

And what was on Broadway in Williamsburg, Brooklyn? Nothing--only the finest nickel and dime store in all the world! It was big and glittering and had everything in the world in it...or so it seemed to an eleven year-old girl. Francie had a nickel. Francie had power. She could buy practically anything in that store. It was the only place in the world where that could be...

She walked back home down Graham Avenue, the Ghetto street. She was excited by the filled pushcarts--each a little store in itself--the bargaining, the emotional Jews and the peculiar smells of the neighborhood; baked stuffed fish, sour rye bread fresh from the oven, and something that smelled like honey boiling. She stared at the bearded men in their alpaca skull caps and silkolene coats and wondered what made their eyes so small and fierce. She looked into the tiny hole-in-the-wall shops and smelled the dress fabrics arranged in disorder on the tables. She noticed the feather beds bellying out of windows, clothes of Oriental-bright colors drying on the fire-escapes and the half-naked children playing in the gutters. A woman, big-with-child, sat patiently at the curb in a stiff wooden chair. She sat in the hot sunshine watching the life on the street and guarding within herself, her own mystery of life.

Francie remembered her surprise that time when mama told her that Jesus was a Jew. Francie had thought that he was a Catholic. But mama knew. Mama said that the Jews had never looked on Jesus as anything but a troublesome Yiddish boy who would not work at the carpentry trade, marry, settle down, and raise a family. And the Jews believed that their Messiah was yet to come, mama said. Thinking of this, Francie stared at the Pregnant Jewess.

"I guess that's why the Jews have so many babies," Francie thought. "And why they sit so quiet...waiting. And why they aren't ashamed the way they are fat. Each one thinks that she might be making the real little Jesus. That's why they walk so proud when they're that way. Now the Irish women always looked so ashamed. They know that they can never make a Jesus. It will be just another Mick. When I grow up and know that I am going to have a baby, I will remember to walk proud and slow even though I am not a Jew."