by Christine Schoenwald
We had two ginkgo trees in front of our house on Cherry Ave in San Jose, Calif.
Ginkgo trees have lovely, fan shaped, light green leaves. Falling from their branches, they look like wounded dancers as they flutter to the pavement. Coating the sidewalk they lay there as if dead, no more dancing for them- Pas de done. It is a beautiful and serene tree that brings much peace to those fortunate enough to gaze upon it. Well the male trees do.
Ginkgo also known as Maiden Hair Trees, a name that shouldn’t sound creepy yet does anyway, are unique in that they have separate sexes, a male and a female. The female ginkgo tree has beautiful leaves but also has an extra added bonus- fruit balls. These aren’t delicious tasting fruit orbs such as juicy Mirabelle plums or crisp Granny Smith apples; this fruit is a horrible smelling, land mine, inedible in its natural state. When stepped on, it smells like vomit or rancid butter. Making up the fruit pod, is a slimy skin with a core nut. People eat this nut to improve their memory, cure their headaches, and help with their tinnitus. It is the skin that smells disgusting. Ginkgo has been known to cure depression. Ginkgo has also been known to cause depression. If you get some of the flesh on the bottom of your shoe, no matter how hard you try to scrape it off, the nausea-inducing stench lingers on causing you to feel depressed!
A few times, pedestrians slipped on the crushed ginkgo balls decomposing on our sidewalk. Fortunately, no one ever threatened legal action due to the Throw Up Trees.
Growing up it was my job to rake the ginkgo leaves and ginkgo fruit off the lawn and put them in the barrel. In those days, it was one barrel and one barrel only- everything altogether. After the raking, I would mow the lawn. Along with ironing my Dad’s dress shirts and shining his shoes, this was how I earned my ten dollars monthly allowance. I certainly should have asked for a raise, especially when the neighbor boys, Albert and Martin Marin would take the carefully raked piles of leaves, grass clippings and ginkgo balls and throw them back onto the lawn. I know they did this because they liked me, just as they demonstrated their affection for me by putting my stingray bike on top of the telephone pole or how they lovingly called me “Fish Face” because I had big bulbous eyes. Undoing all my hard work was the same as if they had sent me a big, chocolate heart for Valentines Day, just smellier and more frustrating.
In high school Martin would walk me home. When two Great Danes attacked me, it was Martin who protected me and got bitten even worse than I. When Tami Nobler called me out and threatened to beat me up because I had dared to look at her during passing period, it was Albert who convinced her it wouldn’t be a good idea to mess with me. Big Al and Little Tin were my protectors.
But in grade school, it was much more enjoyable for Albert and Martin to take the trash can filled with smashed ginkgo balls and try to dump it all over me! Throwing like a girl I would hurl the stink balls back at them. They would dodge them and then this would morph into what smelled like a regurgitated food fight but looked like a snowball fight without the snow.
Often times I would get some ginkgo stink on my shoe and track it into class causing comments like “ Ugh what is that stench?” or “Who spewed?” I would do my best “Christmas Story” look around like I had no clue to the origin of the putrid odor. “Smell? What smell? I don’t smell anything!”
Ginkgoes are sacred in China. Several ginkgo trees were the only living survivors of the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima- they are revered. Sometimes I would be saved from my toil, when van loads of Asian people would pull up in front of our house. The Group Leader would politely ask if they could have the ginkgo fruit? “Take them-we don’t want those smelly balls!” Very methodically they would gather up every last ginkgo, put them carefully in plastic containers, get back into the van and drive away. Surprisingly the De-stinking method is easy, you simply bury the ginkgo balls in the ground until the skin disintegrates. Once the nut is free of the scummy casing, you can bottle the nuts and sell them at an outrageous price. I didn’t care if the Van People were making millions of dollars from our ginkgoes, if it prevented me from having to deal with them- it was well worth it!
In my backyard today in Glendale, Calif. there is a huge lemon tree that truly is laden down with lemons. Rotting lemons cover the concrete around the tree. I also have a number of outdoor cats that sometimes feel that old lemon leaves and pulpy decayed lemons are an excellent substitute for a litter box.
Once again I must watch where I walk and the danger of getting something foul smelling on my shoes is great. Honestly though the mixture of cat poop and rotten citrus still smells better than those ginkgo balls.
Bio- Christine Schoenwald is a writer/performer living in Los Angeles. She hosts a monthly personal essay show called " Pinata." She is proudest of the show " Off-Kilter: The Monologues of Christine Schoenwald" which was performed at Bang Theatre in Hollywood.