We used to live on Third Avenue. It was the house where Sadie was born: a nondescript, stucco, three-story place. We lived in the top apartment with Amanda, our roommate for that year. Our downstairs neighbors were great. One of them was a sweet, quiet guy named Mad Dog who was always reading Rilke.|
Across the alley was a ranch-style house with a Portuguese family living in it. It might have been because we were new to the city and didn't know that many people, or maybe because Selena and I were waiting and then caring for a baby, or maybe because we didn't have a ton of money, but for whatever reason we used to watch this family. There were maybe four or five little kids living there, with two little parents.
Once, I saw a young girl, maybe four years old, wander out onto the back porch, look around furtively, then start climbing over the railing with an umbrella in her hand. I watched, interested, for maybe 15 seconds until it dawned on me that she was going to pull a Mary Poppins: she wanted to float gently to the ground with the umbrella as a parachute. I ripped open the window and hollered at her to stop. She hesitated, pointedly ignored me, and kept climbing. The pause, though, gave her mother enough time to scoot out of the kitchen and pull her back. As the girl was hauled away she glared at me, disgusted with my treachery.
| The older man who lived in the house - the father, I presumed - used to get up very early on Saturday mornings and tidy his yard. That spring I was often up at the same time, hanging out with Sadie. She was a couple of months old, and together we'd sit by the window and watch him work. One morning in May the man was up and energetically cleaning his porch. There was a cherry tree in his back yard, and fallen pink petals were covering his deck.|
There are many cherry blossom trees in our neighborhood, and when the petals get wet and fall, they sort of adhere to whatever they land on. They lie flat with a kind of suction action, making them as difficult to dislodge as wet pasta on the floor. I often see car owners desperately trying to brush them off their vehicles as they hustle to get to work. There were a lot of these blossoms stuck all over this guy's porch.
For a good half-hour, the man swept and scrubbed, first with a push-broom, then with rags and buckets of steaming water. After a commendable effort but questionable results, he changed his tack and went inside. He came out with a mean-looking vacuum cleaner, a big Shop-Vac thing with a heavy-duty hose attachment that sounded like a jet taking off.
The man got down to serious business, and for some time he vacuumed the hell out of that porch, beginning in a tight series of parallel lines, as if he was mowing a lawn. Then he turned sideways and started again, running the machine cross-wise for a second pass. He became visibly agitated, working faster and with a subdued violence to his strokes, kicking at the cord and pulling the machine after him, hard enough that it slid and skittered across the deck.
And then it dawned on him where all these fucking little petals were coming from and he looked up, staring at the tree. After a pause through which I could almost see him thinking, he slowly lifted the hose of the Shop-Vac up to the tree. The man started low, working on the trunk, and then climbed up to kneel, teetering, on the railing, running the nozzle over each overhanging branch, from the base out to the tips.
I ran to awake Selena and Amanda, rasping that they absolutely had to get up and see this. The alley dude is vacuuming his tree! They weren't thrilled, but they both did get up and we all stood at the window one early morning in May and watched a man vacuum every last petal off of a cherry blossom tree.
by Matt Hern