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.
Imagine: I come close to see that the tree (suddenly?) twitters and shimmers with bright green parakeets—those same birds, edged with madonna blue under their wings and streaks of gold on their tails, that fought me for the plums and apricots in our Antipodean garden; those visitors from a lifetime ago, those criers and emerald scavengers who sounded the hot, dry summers, when the Southern Hemisphere skies reached parched blue throats across December to April.
I remember the arrival of bustling, assertive swarms … but here? So far from that garden? In these surroundings the parakeets resemble a Secausus NJ outlet shopping tour group, snapping bargain after juicy bargain. But there is not fruit on this wizened tree, here in Union City. The birds snap and chortle instead at each other, wrestling branch space only to relinquish it moments later to another frantic bird.
On a nearby stoop an elderly couple watched, their faces like apricots in dry grass at summer’s end. A tall, gracious Sudanese woman stood beneath the sapling, alongside a young couple who whispered to themselves in tonal staccato song. Several Spanish speakers chattered to each other. I joined the motley collection of humans under the tree. Nobody spoke my language, and I did not speak theirs. But (suddenly) words shimmered between all of us—words we all understood.
The parakeets! What are they doing here?
This is like home!
We have not seen these since …
Back in our country
Where have they come form?
Why here? why New Jersey?
Why Union City?
What do they come here for?
This is a miracle.
And it was.
We stood, this eclectic immigrant collection, in a reverent and grieving, joyous moment under the parakeet tree. Suddenly we were home, where the air was hot and family close and a sense that we knew and were known by a landscape, a place. Were we holding hands?
Then somewhere a feathered tour-guide called and the flock lifted and dispersed, forcing their tropical green to scatter the grey. For a moment. With their leaving, a dream dissipated, and we humans smiled tentatively at each other, shaking our heads, the images flittering in the air between us like tiny wings.
In a new, soft silence, we walked our separate ways, leaving only the old apricot-skinned couple on the stoop, enfolded in their meditation.
Had the birds drifted over us a pre-Babel cloud, under which we could once more unite and look upwards with wonder and mystery, freed from the desire to colonize and own what we saw? It was a miracle, this sharing of memories and wonder, this bird-gift for a precious time, where we immigrants were nurtured.
Under the parrakeet tree, in the pall of a lonely New Jersey winter.