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Autumn in New York

by Jacob Thompson

Polyphony, Volume 1, Issue 1

First Published March 2019, Manchester


It was a quarter-to-twelve on the fifteenth of June when the first autumn leaf drifted down from the Old London plane tree, coming to rest on the waters of Central Park reservoir. This tree, at the grand old age of one hundred and fifty, considered itself a staunch follower of routine, and so naturally felt a sense of dismay at the sight of a premature leaf-fall. It was spared embarrassment, at least, thanks to a relative lack of witnesses. Only a single groundsman noticed the passing of the leaf, and though its presence on that midsummer morning struck him as peculiar, he decided ultimately that it was a freak event, not worth a second glance, and certainly nothing to worry about.

Unfortunately for the people of New York State, the groundsman was entirely wrong in his assumptions. Though the Old London plane tree was the first in Central Park to start shedding early, it was by no means the last. Within a week, every tree in the greater Manhattan area had begun to shed, green leaves bleeding to red, crisping to brown, and licked away by the city-wide breeze. The groundsmen found their hands full at the park, the street cleaners worked long hours to clear the intersections, and every landlord on the Upper East Side grumbled as they scraped their gutters and plunged the drains to rid them of unwelcome mulch.

When the early fall persisted state-wide, a large-scale investigation was launched. Soon enough, every botanist with half a diploma descended upon New York City, a swarm of green-fingered academics eager to make use of their long-stale doctorates. Motel corridors filled with the chatter of ecologists, dendrologists, and the lesser-known xylologists, all eager to spew as much jargon into one another’s ears as possible, as if in competition with the trees to fill the streets with words rather than leaves. Yet for all of their sap-samples, root examinations, and gratuitous quadrat-tossing, they could find no scientific explanation as to why the trees of New York had decided, so suddenly, to give up the ghost. Their extensive researched uncovered only two facts: one, the early autumn extended no further than the New York state boundary, and two: though the leaves were falling from every tree in the state, there was not a single bare tree to be seen. Which is to say, the leaves were utterly endless, sprouting again and again, but always yellowed, ready to fall.

Very quickly the city’s populace descended into a state of very vocal (if not entirely proportionate) panic, exacerbated by the headlines of local newspapers; Mother Nature’s Revenge, cried some, Climate Change DEBUNKED, others. The members of the press felt vindicated, if not exactly satisfied, when the ongoing leaf-fall began to affect the city in increasingly dangerous ways. The number of road accidents surged tenfold for June due to slimy compost lining the roads. Sewage networks in the lower west-side overflowed, spilling human refuse into the streets for days on end. And down a cheap backstreet in Sheepshead Bay, a ground-floor apartment was submerged in leaves, leading to the death of a ninety-old widower. Too weak to unblock her door, and lacking a working telephone due to an ongoing dispute with AT&T, she starved to death in the space of a week.

Amongst the increasing disorder, one Edward Folsom, district judge, seized his opportunity to displace a struggling Mayor de Blasio. Elected by landside vote on the promise of eradicating the early autumn, Folsom set to work on the obliteration of New York’s trees. To chop them down, he surmised, would be the easiest way of halting their deciduous dissent. An entirely watertight strategy, were it not for the sudden disappearance of every axe and chainsaw within a hundred miles. Some suspected Russian involvement in this untimely disaster, others North Korea, but both Mr. Putin and kid Kim remained predictably tight-lipped.

Without a counter to the root of the autumn, Folsom’s team turned their eyes to its symptoms instead. A crack team of engineers and the aforementioned xylologists devised a leaf-containment system overnight: the leaves would be swept from the streets by a convoy of snowploughs, then condensed at scrapyards around the city, before finally being stacked in the derelict blocks of Queens and Brooklyn. Thus began the construction of a deciduous skyline, towers of leaves blazing with light come every sunset, some of them stretching so tall that they threatened to outreach the Chrysler building.

Further means of leaf-removal supplemented this approach. The unemployed and homeless of the Bronx and New Jersey were taken on as groundskeepers for the airports of JFK, La Guardia, Long Island, and Albany International, earning a minimum wage (plus a daily lunch buffet) in exchange for six hours of hard raking. The highways remained open thanks to the installation of large wind turbines, sixty feet tall and thirty feet across. These, when placed at regular intervals along the busiest stretches, would blow any rogue leaves back into the unnoticed upstate, to be the bane of the Rust Belt’s rotting verandas.

An unintentional side effect of these processes was the sudden explosion of the local squirrel population. At first the fuzzy creatures were a novelty, met with a smile in the leaf- swamped porches of Broadway’s hotels, where they could often be seen diving for buried acorns and old cigarette butts. What nobody seemed to realise, however, is that the phrase ‘breeding like rabbits’ applies to all rodents and not just rabbits themselves, and so when the squirrels started to outnumber the leaves, public opinion rapidly turned against them. Over the course of a week they went from being transitory pets to unwelcome vermin, rats with bushy tails shitting in every doorway and teaming up to overturn dumpsters.

On the evening of July the sixth the squirrels officially outstayed their welcome.

Numerous reports were made to the police of an incident in front of Joey P.’s deli on twenty first street, involving a particularly large pack of particularly large squirrels. Joey P.’s had, for many years, been renowned for having the best whole-wheat bagels in the tri-state area, but from that unsavoury evening onwards it was known only as the spot where little Mike O’Connor, lover of Spiderman and Saturday morning cartoons, was dragged into the sewers by a horde of hungry rodents.

Needless to say, Mayor Folsom’s priorities immediately switched from leaf control to rodent eradication. This time no axes nor chainsaws were needed, only a citywide announcement that for every sack of dead squirrels brought to cremation centres, one could receive twenty-five US dollars and a two-for-one movie ticket for any general release film. Thus began the great squirrel massacre, which proved a welcome distraction to the wider problem of the endless autumn. Unbeknownst to all but Folsom, the tide of leaves was rising, and it was only a matter of time before its banks were ready to burst.

Whilst everyone was busy shooting squirrels and watching movies, the Hudson river filled so high with leaves that its waters began to seep into the city streets. Late on the evening of July fifteenth, the Staten Island ferry drifted into Greenwich village, stripping fifty red-brick apartments of their rusted fire escapes, and killing a great many balcony-bound bonsai trees and peace lilies in the process. Catfish, pike and bass followed swiftly in the wake of the behemoth, floundering on subway-steps and sausage stands alike. Soon enough the water had spread into all low-lying areas, and Little Italy became Little Venice, its dumpsters floating downriver like so many gondolas.

The muddied river-water soon submerged each and every parking space along Columbus Avenue, once coveted, now useless, ending New York’s traffic problem once and for all. Of conventional transport only the raised subway lines remained, and so an effort was made to re-engineer each train car to withstand a depth of fifteen metres without taking on water. Commuters did their best to maintain their nine-to-fives, clinging tight to the D-train for dear life as they plunged beneath the surface-line a halfway to the office. Grand Central Station was a sight to behold, an opulent aquarium of algae-lined pillars and salt-soaked statuettes. Green eels wrapped themselves about the warmth of the old station clock, and oysters, so long missing from the Hudson, settled amongst the nooks and crannies of the ticket machines, trading their pearls for a handful of nickels.

A great effort was made, it cannot be denied, to keep the city running. Mayor Folsom’s efforts did, for a time, provide some relief to the capital, if only temporary. There were enough squirrels for everyone to keep well fed, even if it did mean substituting Steak à la carte for Sciuridae salad. Besides, the floods weren’t so destructive as one might have imagined, thanks to the remarkable adaptability of New York’s residents. Dams and bridges were constructed where necessary, and even the Central Park Zoo stayed open, its penguins roaming free throughout the waterlogged walkways, its polar bears safe and sound, hibernating in their dens. All in all, for all the autumn’s attempts, the city kept on swinging. An apple as big as the Big Apple, however, was bound to go rotten in all that mulch. Autumn, after all, isn’t all just leaves and pinecones. The city’s residents could clear the drains as much as they liked, tower the leaves as tall as they’d reach, wrap up warm in layer after layer against the evening breezes. And still, it would have happened. For every autumn, ever since the first so many millennia ago, has brought with it the bittersweet melancholy of a year turning in on itself, of a story coming to a close, of a romance fading to unfeeling gloom.

Autumn, for all of its colour, is a time for the blues.

And with an endless autumn, came endless woe. It was never the leaves that killed New York, but the unmissable heartbreak of October, filling up every moment of August like static pouring out over a good record, blighting the symphony of summer with all the subtlety of a brass band at a funeral. This miasma worked its way into each and every heart, every stolen kiss, every first date and every last phone call. Divorces surged tenfold for the month, young lovers forgot how to love, and fifteen hundred engagement rings vanished overnight, returned for half the price or else tossed into the Hudson river.

The situation did not improve, and on the sixteenth of August, his fifty-fifth birthday, Mayor Folsom joined a queue of his neighbours, friends and citizens, and waited patiently to throw himself from the edge of the Brooklyn Bridge. At twenty-past two his turn arrived, and he stepped up to the lip of the barrier, the wind urging him on. His withered heart all turned to mulch, he jumped, and that was that.

Such was the nature of the fall of New York. Some say there are survivors still, those with the strongest hearts and minds, still wandering the streets in hope of spring. But the squirrels, in their wisdom, know the truth. They sit along the raised line of the D-Train every night, and gaze down at what remains of old Manhattan. It’s hard to say what they might make of the moribund scene. Yet still, one can imagine that there’s beauty in the way the river shines, glistening with rose-gold rings, their diamonds all aloft.

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