by Irv Rothstein
I drift a long way back, to autumn 1959. It was clear and crisp, a perfect New England Thanksgiving Day. A student at the University of New Hampshire, I had been invited by a local family for Thanksgiving dinner. The Tsonev’s house was on the west side of a 3-house cul-de-sac in Durham two miles from my apartment. Trees still dressed in the reds and yellows of autumn filled the yard. Byung, my roommate, was squatting in front of a cluster of young trees to the left of the house when I got there.
“Hey Byung, let’s eat!” I was energized by the walk and very hungry.
“Shh!” Byung smiled and put his index finger to his lips. He motioned me down beside him.
Short and slender, Byung had grown up on a farm in Korea. During the Korean Conflict he worked for the Americans as a driver and interpreter. He had an amazing facility for language and a more amazing facility for making things grow. After the cease fire, one of the officers he worked for, arranged for Byung to study Agronomy in the states; UNH was his choice.
What’s this squatting all about? I thought, squirming my western body into an unfamiliar and painful position. I was not comfortable and I was not good at being quiet, but I was curious about Byung’s skill with plants.
I had been raised in Chelsea, a small working class city north of Boston. Chelsea, one and a half square miles of mostly three story apartment houses, was almost equally divided between Irish, Italians, Poles and Jews, with a taste of Armenians, French-Canadians and Blacks— two Chinese families added to the mix. Most of the population were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. The major activity in Chelsea was gambling.
The kids had names like Pie, Chummy, Champ, Coach, Donuts, Cornflakes: a spicy blend of Damon Runyon characters in a small pot. I started my story as a fast-talking, know-it-all, impatient, often angry, urban street kid from a single parent family who gambled and learned building skills working for Dan the Plumbing Man and — the Army. The GI Bill made college possible.
Watching things grow was a whole new experience for me, but I respected friendship and Byung was a friend. We both worked for the Tsonev’s; I was their handyman, Byung their gardener.
I breathed deeply, swallowed my impatience and followed Byung’s gaze. All I saw were five young trees with a few tiny yellow and red leaves on thin, skeletal branches. The trees were arranged in a staggered line along the west side of the house. My muscles tightened, the cold wind blew through me, and I began to shiver. Just as I was about to throw in the towel, Byung stood up, ran his fingers slowly through his thick black hair and walked slowly toward the porch stairs. I groaned to a standing position and staggered after him.
At the foot of the stairs Byung stopped and said, “The trees talk to me.” He pointed at a small tree full of leaves, “This one tells me it will live and thrive.” Then he pointed to two little trees that were growing crookedly and very close to the house, “These two little ones say they are waiting to die.”
We walked into the house and took our place at the dinner table. I looked around, everybody was involved with his or her food; I sat with fork in hand, my mind whirling in circles going nowhere. Talking trees? Whoa, hold it, wait one second, talking is — communicating. Do they? Trees droop, they stand tall, they change color, their leaves fall off, and they use, body language.
Trees communicate, they do talk — I just never learned to listen. Wood talks to a carpenter, a good woodworker knows his material, how and where to shape or cut it, the texture, the grain, the color, all tell their tale. The greater the skill and awareness of the listener the more elaborate the story. All the animate and inanimate things have stories. I’d been taking the word “talk” too literally.
A new world opened up to me. I had been ready and a teacher had been there with my lesson. I had journeyed a short sixty miles from Chelsea, but had arrived in the mind of the East and discovered a universe where everything and everybody had a story to tell.
Irv Rothstein grew up in Chelsea, just outside Boston, the eldest of three children raised by a working mother. He went to work at eight and was drafted into the military in 1954; graduated from the University of New Hampshire 1960. He had various sales jobs in Boston and in 1964 moved to Sn Francisco; kicked around working at Macy’s, SF Radio, various restaurants as a short order cook, and in Sacramento as an aide to Wilson Riles in the CA Education Department. In 1964, he went to work at Upward Bound at SF State and joined the SFUSD in 1965, where he taught both High School and Childcare until retirement in 2002. He took a leave of absence to teach in Myamar (Burma) in 1971. Irv wrote about his teaching experience in his memoir, It Couldn’t Have Been the Pay: A Life of Teaching and Learning in Public Schools.