Stealing Trees

We started stealing trees after the elms were dead and gone, when the city planted a twig in front of Frank's house. The twig had no branches and no leaves. It was as thin as a car antenna. From Frank's front stoop at dusk it was invisible.

So Frank and I started driving around at night and stealing thicker, bigger saplings, ones with branches and lots of leaves. We'd dig them up from the better neighborhoods in northwest Detroit, dump them into the trunk of Frank's Fairlane, and replant them on Frank's front lawn.

Frank refused to call what we did stealing; he was always correcting me: Tree relocation, Stanley. The 57 Farrand Street Tree Relocation Project.

We could plant the trees at Frank's house because Frank's mother didn't live there and Frank's father never noticed what we did. Mr. Chimek played cello with the Detroit Symphony, and when he wasn't in concert he was upstairs in one of his rooms, either practicing music or listening to it. Occasionally he'd wander downstairs and fry himself some eggs, then go back up without turning the burner off. I can still picture him leaving the house for a concert: dressed in his black suit, white hair springing out of place, walking past the trees without turning his head. I lived five blocks over from Frank, and since my mother never passed by the Chimeks' house, she never saw our accumulating collection of stolen trees.

I suggested to Frank that we stop stealing trees after we'd bagged and replanted half a dozen. But Frank pointed out that stealing trees was less degenerate than setting tires on fire and rolling them down the ramp of the underground parking lot at Farrand and Woodward, something we used to do all the time in junior high. And by relocating lots of trees onto his front lawn, Frank said, and sneaking a few onto the lawns of our neighbors, we were helping to restore our city's reputation and name: Highland Park, City of Trees.

We used to watch for the signs with these word--stamped in a circle around a tree silhouette--when we were little kids coming home from Detroit; crossing over the Highland Park border, we'd shout, Now we're in Highland Park!

In those days, the elms formed a ceiling of leaves a hundred feet up from Highland Park's streets. I didn't notice the leaves over my head as I grew older any more than people notice the ceilings of their houses. But when I was a little kid I used to look up past all the space to where the layers of green began and watch the breeze stirring the leaves and imagine myself up there.

Ten years later, there wasn't a branch or leaf left in all of Highland Park's sky, but the signs were still standing. We watched for them on our way home from stealing trees, and though we still spoke out when we crossed over the border, our voices were quieter and our emphasis had changed. Most of the time we'd be smoking a joint or a pipe. Now we're in Highland Park, we'd say. City of Stolen Trees, I'd sometimes add.

Relocated trees, Stanley, Frank would insist.

Daytimes that summer, Frank and I worked at the rag factory at Woodward and Cortland, cutting up new rags and washing and drying old ones for the guys at Chrysler. Evenings we played basketball with Frank's neighbors, usually quitting when it got dark, but when we felt like it playing on into the night using the light Frank had rigged on his garage. (The guys we played with said Frank should turn the light off and just use himself as a bulb, he was so pal--blond-white hair, moon-white skin--that he almost glowed in the dark. They didn't comment on my whiteness, except for once when I was sunburned, and Dwight Bates fouled me and I cried out, and Dwight said he thought all the tender white people had moved out of Highland Park.)

Besides stealing trees and playing ball, another thing we did that summer at night was sit around while Carol Baker corn-rowed Frank's head. Cornrowing was big then, but just among black people.

I'd sit on Frank's porch and watch Carol working through Frank's hair and listen to her fuss and scold and threaten to slap Frank if he didn't hold still. As Carol got close to finishing, she'd swear she'd never braid such a fine-haired jumpity fool ever again. But Carol braided Frank every week all that summer, and whenever she went to slap him, her palm landed so lightly it was more like a stroke. Frank would reach up and take hold of Carol's hand, and Carol would pull away and threaten Frank some more. Frank just smiled and fingered his braids. He liked being fussed over, and the tight, close, pale braids kept his hair out of his face, which was perfect for playing basketball, and for stealing trees.

In August of that summer, Frank's father had a heart attack and died. Frank and I found him on the floor of his practice room with his tiger-necked cello lying beside him. My mom said Frank could come live with us for a year (we had one year of high school to go), but Frank wanted to stay where he was. He'd lived in that house all his life.

Two weeks after Mr. Chimek's funeral, Frank decided that we should steal a tree from downtown. He had seen its picture in the paper next to an article about the new Blue Cross building. The tree stood out in the foreground of the picture, a dome-shaped, leafy maple. So far we had stolen only locusts and oaks, the main kinds of trees being planted back then. The maple looked almost too big to steal, but we decided to check it out in person.

First we smoked some marijuana. Then we drove downtown. The maple looked even better in real life. Its hundreds of leaves were perfect and huge, and it looked as if its branches had been set in their upward, outward curves with a whole lot of planning and expertise. But there were too many cops cruising around down there--they never gave us a clean opening. At two o'clock in the morning we got on the Chrysler Expressway again, lit another pipe, and headed north, back toward Highland Park.

We hadn't gone a mile when Frank spotted the tree of heaven on the freeway slope. Later, planting the tree on his lawn, Frank said, I've thought of another name for our project: the Otto Chimek Memorial Grove. But when he first saw the tree of heaven, Frank didn't mention his father, he didn't say anything at all--he just pulled over onto the shoulder and looked at me with his high, shining eyes.

What are you doing? I said.

Frank pointed at the tree.

What? I said. You want that tree?

It wasn't the best-looking tree even from the car. Just your typical ghetto tree that grows anywhere at all, but mostly in vacant lots and from between sidewalk cracks. Not the kind of tree that anyone plants, let alone steals. I looked at it, branches angling downward like palm fronds, then at the green sign hanging from the freeway overpass just ahead: MACK 1/2 MILE. On our trips between downtown and Highland Park, we had seen the sign plenty of times, but we hadn't even thought of stopping here before. This was a part of the city where black people didn't stop unless they knew someone who lived here, and white people didn't stop here at all.

The tree was growing close enough to the overpass that if a car crossed overhead we could hide below, and if a car came down the freeway we could scramble up on top of the overpass. I tried not to think about what we would do if cars came by both places at the same time.

Frank pulled on the hood of his black sweatshirt and tucked handfuls of his long braids inside the hood until none of the dozens of plaits showed. I pulled on my black baseball cap. Then we got out of the Fairlane and started up the grassy slope.

Old, dry litter cracked like glass under our feet. I looked at the overpass to my left and felt like I was on another planet. All my life I'd seen freeway embankments and overpasses, but never from this angle, the overpass at eye level, the embankment slanting under our feet, nothing between the overpass and us, nothing between the grass and us, but the cool night air. Standing on that hill made the whole world seem tipped and slanted, it--seemed like the world had been set on its edge.

I spread the garbage bag beside the tree. Frank pushed the shovel in to its hilt eight times, cutting a circle around the skinny trunk. He had just got the roots separated into their own private clump when we heard a raggedy car in the distance, up on street level.

Suddenly it seemed a bad idea to duck under the overpass. It came to me that every movie that ended badly had people getting wasted in closed-in, concrete places. Frank and I glanced at each other. Then he ditched the shovel and I dropped the bag, and we ran the rest of the way up the slope and jumped out on the service drive and started walking along it as if we had not just run up there from the expressway canyon.

Soon we heard the raggedy car, or at least a raggedy car, approaching from behind us. We forced our breathing slow, tried to loosen our legs and our shoulders. The car drew closer, and then alongside us. We turned our heads toward the car but kept walking. The driver, black as the car's upholstery, leaned his head out the window. Can you please tell us how to get to the corner of Russell and Pearl? he asked, his voice a perfect imitation of a prissy white man's. Four or five others inside the car laughed. All of them were black. At least one was a girl.

Frank smiled in the direction of the carload of people, trying to act as if he were relaxed enough to think their joking funny. He kept walking. I kept step with him, wondering where we were going. We were getting farther from our car.

You boys lost? someone from the back seat said.

No, Frank said.

Oh yeah? the driver said, sounding black this time, You sure look lost.

More laughter came from the others.

Frank glanced at the driver. Yeah, I know we do, he admitted, just the right amount of blackness creeping into his voice--enough to let them hear that he was not a total outsider, but not so much that he seemed to be making any sort of claim. We still kept walking, but we didnít say anything more. It was better to say too little than to say something wrong.

Where you boys from? the driver asked.

This time Frank didn't answer.

I steadied my breathing. Highland Park, I said carefully, trying to sound offhand and matter-of-fact, as if I didn't expect my answer to boost their opinion of us.

The girl shrilled something wordless from the back seat.

Highland Park! the driver said. They let you boys stay in Highland Park?

For now, I guess, I said.

The driver eyed me more closely. Then he laughed, almost a friendly laugh, his lips breaking wide. He looked to be about twenty years old. He was wearing a light brown shirt zipped open at the throat. And where you going later, man, when you got to move?

I don't know--Romulus, or somewhere, I said, with true dejection at the prospect. I'd never seen Romulus, but I had it pictured as rows of dirty white shoebox houses that collapsed when the jets flew overhead.

Romulus, someone from the back seat said. Where the fuck is Romulus?

I know where Romulus is, the driver said. He jabbed his finger in the air. Shit, you got to move, man, don't move to Romulus. The whites out there so mean they don't even like whites.

If I was white, the man in the passenger seat said, I'd move to Grosse Pointe, Bloomfield Hills, somethin' like that.

If you was white, one of the men in the back seat said. Listen to the nigger: 'If I was white.'

The three in the back seat laughed loudly and easily. I let myself smile but kept my own crazy laughter down in my belly.

I got one other question to ask you, the driver said. The laughter stopped. I could feel all the ground I thought we'd gained slipping away from us. Why was you digging up that tree?

The trouble that had been floating around grew bigger and clearer, pressed at the quiet. My vision started shrinking inward, I couldn't focus, I could hardly see. I didn't look at Frank or at the driver or anywhere.

I know there's plenty of them raggedy trees in Highland Park, the driver said. So what I want to know is, what do two white boys from Highland Park want with a tree that's as common there as dirt? I mean, that tree is as common in Highland Park as niggers are, am I right?

We've been digging up all kinds of trees, from northwest Detroit, mostly, and planting them in front of his house, I said, glancing at Frank. Frank was looking down at the pavement.

You boys really are lost, the driver said. This is not northwest Detroit.

Frank kept on looking down. I couldn't see his eyes. Frank! I thought. Do something! Save us! Frank had a way of winning people over to him, sometimes without saying a word. Too bad this wasn't a carload of old people or women or girls. But even among the guys at school Frank was well liked, for a white person.

I thought of letting the men in the car know that Frank's father had just died. I thought of letting on somehow that he'd died just last week, just last night.

But as soon as I thought of it, I knew it would be a mistake to bring up that subject at all.

I don't think you boys really are from Highland Park, the driver said. I think youíre from one of them suburbs where they let the raggedy white folks live. Taylor, maybe. Or Romulus.

I thought of ways to refute this--name all the streets in Highland Park, show the eraser-burn tattoos our sixth-grade class-mates had rubbed into our shoulders, at our request. But I thought that eraser-burn tattoos might be a Highland Park black thing rather than a black thing in general, and Frank's and my tattoos wouldn't have shown up that well anyway in the dark, being white on white.

In fourth grade, when our school was just about half black, the black kids in our class made plans to build a spaceship and fly to the moon, blowing up the earth as they left. They talked about it one day while the teacher was out of the room, said they wouldn't save a thing on earth except the people they took with them, and started calling off the passenger list. They named all the black kids in the room, and then one of them said, And Frank Chimek.

Yeah! another boy said, Frank Chimek is cool.

After talking it over a little, they added my name too--Frank and I were the only two white people on earth they thought deserved to be saved.

But of course I couldn't say this to those men in the car. I thought of all the times I'd wanted to convince someone of something--convince a girl that I was the guy for her, or a teacher that my excuse was really real, or some guys who wanted to beat me that I didn't deserve to be beaten.

The driver said something about taking us back to the tree.

A deep voice from the back seat called out, What you going to do with 'em, blood, lynch 'em? The whole group laughed hysterically. I couldn't help smiling, though it felt like the smile of a crazy man.

Let's lynch them and that sorry-ass tree, another voice from the back said. Hang 'em all three from the overpass.

The driver waited until the laughter died. I don't like white boys stealing niggers' trees, he said, no matter how sorry the trees is, or the boys. Y'all move over and make room for these boys.

There was movement inside the car. A door clicked open. I jerked as if the click had come from a knife or a gun, and I guess Frank must have moved too. Wait! Wait! someone screeched. It was the girl. She scrambled forward so that her wide face and thick, round arms leaned over the front seat. Take off your hood, she said to Frank.

Frank looked up from the street with that distant expression people and dogs wear just before they get beaten. Fool! the girl said, slapping at someone in the back seat. Don't be pulling on me. Take off your hood, she repeated.

Frank looked at the driver.

Go on, he said.

Frank untied the string and pushed the hood back, and his blond braids unfolded and fell all around him.

I knew it! the girl crowed. They told me white folks couldn't do their hair like that, but I knew y'all could, I knew it. Come here--let me see.

Frank didn't move. He just stood there with his braids lying in lines against his scalp, snaking down around his shoulders, practically glowing in the dark.

Damn, boy, the driver said, did you get dunked in a tub of bleach?

Maybe he's an albino, the girl said. Maybe he's really black. She and the man sitting in the passenger seat started arguing.

C'mon, woman, a white black man? Give me a break.

I saw a black albino once, man, in my social studies book. It was a purely white black man.

Girl, you're talkin' about an Oreo.

I'm talkin' about an albino--don't you know what an albino is?

Why don't y'all stop talking stupid? the driver said. The man is obviously white.

For real, the deep-voiced man agreed, he's some kind of white freak.

Naw, another man from the back said, he just wants to be black.

Is that it, man? the driver said to Frank. Do you wish you was black? Everyone in the car looked at Frank.

Frank lifted his head, his blond braids tilting back, and looked at all the faces looking at him. Right now I do, he said simply, his face serious but hardly afraid, a hint of pleasure at his joke showing around his mouth and in his eyes.

The men in the car laughed suddenly, with surprise. Right now I do, one of them repeated, and everyone laughed harder, with the deep-voiced man saying No shit! No shit! over and over between the laughter of the others.

When the laughter finally stopped, there was a floating sort of pause, like when you're standing on a teeter-totter with both ends off the ground. The driver said something to the others that I didn't quite hear--Let's go or Let them go. Then he turned back to Frank. I don't know why in hell you want that tree, man, he said, but if you still want it, go on and take it--then take your crazy asses back home to Highland Park or wherever it is you're from before you run into some mean niggers or the police. And next time you want to steal a tree, go on out to Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills and steal yourself a nice white tree, something like a pine tree, all right?

All right, Frank said.

The driver shook his head. The car rumbled off. Frank and I walked, fast, back to the freeway slope and lifted the tree of heaven into the garbage bag. Then we walked down the slanting ground holding the bagged tree between us, checking the wide, gray freeway for cars.

The huge overpasses on either side were suspended at our level. We were leaning back against the pull of the slope, taking big strides. It felt like we were traveling between planets, like we were walking down from the sky. It felt like we were aliens--aliens in both worlds. But at least the world we were heading toward was home.