Curse of the plums
It probably seemed like a good idea at the time: Plant plum trees along Portland streets. Not only will you get those sweet-smelling blossoms in the spring, but you'll have an abundant harvest of fruit in midsummer. Juicy, red plums -- yum!
It didn't quite work out that way. Here we are, many decades after these trees were introduced onto the parking strips, and nobody we know is doing anything useful with the plums. We're all just cussing them out.
We don't have a plum tree on our property, but the next-door neighbors do. And we have ample prior experience: We had several of them along the parking strips on our corner lot down in the Buckman neighborhood a decade ago. Every mid-July, the fruit comes on and starts to drop. The fruit is dark purple and contains a small amount of bright red pulp and juice. Unless you sit out there day and night scooping up the little golf ball-sized globes with their hard yellow pits, people walking along are going to smush them. Including you, your mail carrier, and everybody who crosses the threshold of your home. Next thing you know, the red juice is on your floors, getting ground into your rugs. Your car mats start to draw fruit flies.
The falling of the infernal crop invariably coincides with hot weather. And when the smushed plums get baked onto the sidewalk, they cling to the concrete with a tenacity rivaling that of epoxy glue. A garden hose at full blast, a half-inch from them, won't budge them. Nor will a stiff push broom, or a combination of the two. The only way to extract the baked plums from a walk or driveway is to do so with a scrub brush or one's fingers. One plum at a time. The expletives pour out along with the sweat.
One would think that making something out of all that fruit would be a thriving pastime. Not on the Portland blocks where we've dealt with the plums. Into the yard debris they go.
Except for one unforgettable neighbor down in Buckman. This elderly gal lived in an old, old Portland house a couple of blocks off Hawthorne, toward Belmont in the 20s. Her place has literally never been painted since it was built nearly a century ago. If it's been re-roofed over its lifetime, it was many decades ago. It's got a dilapidated garage that's covered in graffiti, inside and out. If you live in that 'hood, you doubtlessly know the place I'm talking about.
Now, to say this neighbor was eccentric is kind of like saying that Lindsay Lohan has some issues. She rarely emerged from that house, and never in daylight. Once in a while, she'd be out on her lawn in the middle of the night, picking dandelions (of which her yard sported many) by the light of a headlamp. Her adult son, who bore an unsettling resemblance to the Unabomber, could be seen in the afternoons, driving a derelict old truck which he'd park outside the house. But the mom hardly ever came out, and only at night.
Around 10:30 one Sunday night during the season of the dropping of the plums, our doorbell rang. It was the old woman, with whom we had never before spoken. "What are you going to do with all that fruit?" she asked. Sweep it up, scrub it off the sidewalks, and throw it away, we told her. She asked if she could come and pick some of it. By all means, we replied, take whatever you want.
And so she brought over her ladder and started picking. We wondered what she was planning to do with the plums, which at their size and mostly pit, aren't much of a taste treat. I thought that she was making wine, for sure -- she seemed like a home-winemaking kind of individual. I figured that that was where the dandelions were going, too. A few days later, she brought over some jam that she had made from the plums. I ate a little of it -- it wasn't bad -- but the Mrs. refused to touch it.
We soon left Buckman, and it was to our dismay that we realized that our new home in Irvington was also under the influence of the plums. It looks as though they lined both sides of our block at one time, before a few people got sick of them and changed them out for something else. (Can you imagine even proposing such a thing to the Portland bureaucrats today? Ha ha!) But the one next door is still there, right in our faces, its nasty little products lying in wait to wedge themselves in our modern, textured plastic soles, there to lurk, certain to show up later on a carpet.
When we got home yesterday from a fantastic week at the coast, the worst of the plums greeted us. Hundreds, in every state of decay, from the freshly dropped and ready to be tracked all over, to the caked-on, baked-on that cling to the pavement so ferociously.
This evening we attacked with buckets and brooms and detergent and brushes and fingernails that will now be stained maroon for days. Being from New Jersey originally, I couldn't help but think dark thoughts about the plums, which I'm told are of Italian origin. I muttered, "This tree is a going to have an accident soon. It's going to get very sick and die somehow. Maybe a few copper nails are accidentally going to wind up in its trunk, and it's going to go away. Then it can be replaced with a couple of nice little ornamental trees that don't drop cr*p all over."
If this was Jersey, there'd be guys that could take care of a tree like this for you. They wouldn't need no permit from the yo-yos down in City Hall, either. "Hey, can I help it if the tree got sick and died? It's da cycle of life."
Anyway, about 20 minutes after we called the job done for the day, we noticed about a half-dozen more plums, freshly dropped. If you catch them when they first hit, you can just wing them out into the street, where they're somebody else's problem. But there are so many of the darn things still waiting to do their Sir Isaac Newton act. Maybe I ought to drop by that old lady's house in Buckman, and see if she's still there. It's getting close to midnight -- this would be a good time to go.