Ginkgo Trees

This essay is the first in a monthly series for all of 2021. Each essay topic is selected from the deck of the card game Apples to Apples.

When I was a sophomore in college, I worked as a dog walker for a woman named Lara who lived in Georgetown. I’d been introduced to Lara by another Georgetown resident and friend, Maggie. I never could quite figure out how I was lucky enough to make their acquaintance, but I’ve always been glad I did.

Lara lived in the cutest townhouse in Georgetown just off of busy M Street. Her block was quiet though, and it bordered a friendly little community park. Multiple times a week I would trek from GW’s Foggy Bottom campus to her house to walk Leila the dog.

Leila was always bursting with energy when I saw her. Every time I came to the house, she would be waiting in the entryway. The second she saw me, she would wiggle her bottom and crouch down, only to shoot up straight into the air like a spring. After jumping half a dozen times, she would calm down enough for me to clip on her leash, and then we would head outside for her walk.

These walks were some of the best parts of my week. Besides just getting to spend time with a snuggly dog, I also got to know a lot about the Georgetown neighborhood.

The park near Lara’s house, for example, I learned was one of the first racially integrated parks in the District. A yellow house just down the street, old and dilapidated (but perhaps once quite grand), was the former home of Julia Childs and her husband in the 1940’s and 50’s. Up the street in the opposite direction was a house that always had several black SUVs parked outside (a security detail). I later learned this was the home of Obama’s DHS Secretary.

At one point I remember being told that another house nearby was the home of some ageing European princess. I was never quite sure which one was hers, so many of the houses in the area were stately enough to be fit for royalty.

There were gardens, churches, butcher shops, book stores, you name it. The sights came together, along with the residents, to make my frequently-traveled slice of Georgetown a sort of daytime home to me.

There was only one thing wrong with any of it: the ginkgo trees.

At the time I had no idea what type of tree they were; I only knew I hated them. Late autumn is around the time when female ginkgo trees drop their fruit. The fruit contains butyric acid, which apparently is the same chemical that can be found in spoiled butter and human vomit. Simply put, it smells absolutely terrible.

I had to tiptoe down the sidewalk to avoid the putrid fallen fruit. The tree seemed to have been favored by some former landscape designer — towering adult ginkgos lined many of the streets I walked down with Leila. Sometimes the smell was so strong, I would hold my breath to avoid breathing in the rotten stench. It’s hard to overstate my dislike for it all.

Over time, I learned to strategically map out my walks to minimize my encounters with the trees. And by late November, most of the fruit had been cleaned up. The neighborhood trees grew dormant for the winter, and I was eventually allowed free reign of the streets once again.

I remember around that time, Lara went out of town for Thanksgiving, and I spent the holiday dog sitting Leila at the townhouse. It was my second Thanksgiving away from my family, and I wasn’t looking forward to spending it alone, even though I had a dog for company and a whole house to myself. Somehow maybe, Maggie (who lived just down the street from Lara) intuited this. She invited me to spend the holiday with her.

She welcomed me into her beautiful home. She let me help her bake an elaborate pumpkin pie (recipe here). She let me sift through the free beauty products she got through her job at the time. She toted me around to her friends’ houses as she made the rounds that evening (hors d’oeuvres at one house, dinner at the next). It was more than simple hospitality; it was unfettered generosity. She offered a lonely college student a warm hearth and even warmer company.

Fast forward a few years, I remember the day I moved into my senior year dorm. I spent the summer beforehand living just outside DC in an apartment I rented with four other GW students. In the two weeks between when that lease ended and when I was allowed into university housing, I was sort of homeless.

I ended up crashing at my friend Madeline’s sublet apartment just off campus. Her roommate was moving out around that time and selling all her furniture — including the bed Madeline had been borrowing for the summer. As college students, we were used to living off crumbs, and so we made the most of our bed-less situation.

There were two old, beat up couches in the living room that the roommate wasn’t planning to sell or take with her. So, Madeline and I pushed them together face to face, creating one giant lounging (and sleeping) area. We piled on our blankets and pillows and slept the rest of the week in the heap, which we lovingly dubbed “megabed.”

Megabed was great for late night whisper sessions and lazy Saturday Netflix marathons, but the old springs in the couch cushions did absolutely nothing for my back. Come dorm move-in day, I was excited to be moving into a room with a real bed.

That day, I borrowed a big blue cart from GW’s housing office and used it to haul all my earthly belongings from Madeline’s apartment to my new dorm. In total, I think I probably made the cross-campus trip three or four times.

After I unloaded the last cartfull into my new room, all I could think of was taking a nap on my luxurious, thin, plastic, university-supplied mattress. But the nap was short lived. Soon after I settled in, my friend and roommate Kelsey showed up.

I remember she came into our shared bedroom, and after a quick survey of the furniture and bathroom situation, she opened the blinds and looked out of the two-story window.

“Hey! We have a ginkgo tree outside. My dad will be so excited!” she said.

Sure enough, her dad, Reed, soon popped his head into the room to say hello. We exchanged in some small talk before Kelsey pointed to the window to show her dad the tree. Just as she predicted, Reed was very excited to see the ginkgo!

Thinking now, I can’t say I remember all the facts he shared with me about the tree. But I was an attentive listener.

It’s worth noting an unfortunate habit of mine, where I tend to cultivate interests in niche subjects — hoarding all sorts of trivia — only to be met by disappointment when they (surprisingly) never come up organically in conversation. Instead, I have to force an opening, and at that point, my audience is far from captive. Appreciating this rare and timely moment for what it was, I listened with sincere enthusiasm as Reed told me about ginkgos.

I was sold. From that point on, I made special note of our pet tree every time I looked out the window. In fact, for the next few weeks, I paused for every ginkgo tree I saw growing on campus. That is, until about mid-October when the ginkgos betrayed me.

It was then that the trees’ fruit started to fall, and I smelled that all too familiar smell. Remembering my dog walking days, I pieced together that this new favorite tree of mine was, in fact, an old enemy.

This news was sad to me, but my hate soon won out. I spent the rest of that fall cursing under my breath every time I looked out my window.

The rest of senior year was hard for me. Frankly, sophomore and junior year hadn’t been much better. Academically things were fine, but so much of me was struggling with my mental health at the time. Of course there is brain chemistry, lifestyle choices, etc. to consider when trying to unravel the reasons behind a person’s unwellness. But beyond just that, I think a part of my problem was (and still is), that when I’m alone too long with my thoughts, things go downhill.

I’d like to think I’m tough enough to get through a lot of things. But sometimes, all it takes is a dark thought to turn a quiet evening into a week-long spiral. I think I was on track for that very thing until Maggie’s Thanksgiving invitation came. And I know I was certainly struggling in the weeks before I imposed on Madeline and then moved in with Kelsey soon after.

My own mother has jokingly told me that if I’m not planning to get married and have kids soon, then I should at least look into adopting a child. I tell her I already have three children: two cats and a robot vacuum, but she says that’s not enough. Mom’s probably on to something though; I don’t think I do very well living on my own.

As hard as college sometimes was, a lot of people really did make it easier. I had my megabed adventures with Madeline, my time as Kelsey’s roommate, my walks with Leila, my whirlwind holiday with Maggie, and many other profoundly meaningful relationships. They all provided me with vital companionship. It’s hard to speculate how different those years would have been without such good company.

For so much of college, I hated the ginkgo tree. And thanks to Kelsey’s dad, I was able to hate them by name for most of senior year (I highly recommend this, it’s so much more intimate a dislike). Even still, it’s impressed upon me just what all fills my mind at the mere mention of ginkgos — the memory of its smelly fruit a pungent reminder of other, exceedingly more pleasant things. An olfactory souvenir of the generosity of friends.

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Megan Casper

Megan Casper

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