Big Apples
New York magazine|September 27 - October 10, 2021
The tree expert who turned the five boroughs into his personal orchard.
By Emma Orlow

I keep asking William Mullan if he’s sure he’s comfortable. “We don’t have to go through with this,” I say. “It’s not too late to reconsider!” But he assures me he’s ready as he unfurls a turquoise rope ladder and removes a long fruit-picking claw from his tote bag.

We’re on an elevated footpath that runs parallel to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in South Williamsburg on Yom Kippur, which means the neighborhood’s streets are even busier than usual. Below us, cars pummel their way down the sunken highway, their whirring tires and nonstop honking amplified by the BQE’s canyonlike design.

Mullan is wearing pearl earrings, a crop top, jean cutoffs, and a pair of Timberlands. “The last time I was here, I stepped in shit, and it smelled so bad I just threw my shoes away,” he says. “I’m not messing around this time.”

The plan for the night is to pick some apples from a tree Mullan has been itching to pluck. The catch is that this particular tree is about 17 feet below street level, so, Mullan figures, we can either hop a chainlink fence and descend or get in a car, “pop the hazards on, and jump out.” Eventually, he opts to climb down.

Beyond the fear of getting caught or hurt, we are in a bit of a race against the clock: The weather forecast has changed, and it looks as though a storm may be heading our way. “This will be chaotic good,” Mullan says. I can’t tell if he’s psyching himself up or trying to assuage my nerves, even though he’s the only one making the drop tonight. It feels a bit like both.

“It’s funny to me that some of the best fruit I’ve ever tasted has been from the you might-die places,” he says. “Which seems like a very apt nature metaphor.”

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