I found fifteen dollars on the sidewalk this morning. After grocery shopping at a local Key Food supermarket, I was on my way home when I spotted what appeared to be bona fide American currency—not Monopoly money—in the distance. If memory serves me correctly, I found an orphan five-dollar bill once. But that was the height of my good fortune while wandering to and fro in the great outdoors—until today. I stumbled upon a few stray singles in my fifty-plus years of living, too, but lady luck has been pretty sparing in the lost cash-on-the-ground department. Considering that I’ve lived my entire life in New York City, it would have been nice to unexpectedly find a Ben Franklin, or at the very least an Andrew Jackson a time or two. Why, though, question the fickleness of fate? I’ll happily settle for the Hamilton and Lincoln that came my way today. It is, after all, a free pizza.
Still, I felt kind of guilty when I picked up the money. I nervously looked around to see if anyone was nearby. Had I had spied a bewildered individual frantically searching for something lost, I would have, naturally, approached him or her. But there was nobody in the vicinity who matched that description. And so it was: finders, keepers.
Before my unexpected good fortune on this cloudy and humid morn, I snapped a picture of what in the old neighborhood were known as “Umbrella trees.” They are actually Northern Catalpa trees, I believe. In the 1930s and 1940s, this unique-looking tree with its big leaves, string-bean-like hanging pods, and twisting trunks were, apparently, a favorite with certain builders of homes. The trees were omnipresent in my youth and attracted ladybugs. We youngsters called them “Ladybug trees” and collected the orange-and-black colored insects, which left a foul scent on our hands. I sincerely hope ladybugs are still around and not the victim of over-building or some mysterious toxin. I just haven’t been collecting them for a while, or examining the remaining Ladybug trees to see if they are still there. Call them what you want: Umbrella trees, Ladybug trees, or Northern Catalpa trees. There are still a fair share of the trees around, but I remember them being on the fragile side and not the best big city trees, particularly by the sidewalk’s edge.
I distinctly recall a homemade sign that a neighbor on the next block had painted green on a piece of aluminum, which he affixed to a Ladybug tree on his property. It read: “No dogs allowed here.” In the 1960s and 1970s, most people walked their dogs in the street. They curbed their dogs, if you will. Nowadays, everyone walks their canine companions on the sidewalk and they do what they have to do in the very terra firma where the “No dogs allowed here” was once posted. As the years passed and the tree matured, the bark grew around—above and below—the sign. Soon, it was embedded in the tree—part of the sign and part of a time as well.
Homemade signs are not as common in the here and now. Custom-made or store bought ones with threatening rules are, in fact, the rule. The streets that I grew up on are so much more congested. It would be unwise and pretty much impossible to walk dogs in them as I did a long time ago. You know: when no dogs were allowed by the Umbrella tree, the Ladybug tree, or the Northern Catalpa tree—call it what you will.
(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)