Fate had turned my chances to explore the Christmas tree vendor life into an unfortunately small chunk of time, which felt at first as fruitless as the evergreens being sold.
But in an afternoon, I met vendors from all walks of life - fruit tree workers, an Montreal guitarist, and even an aspiring ninja. All were good-natured and willing to talk, but with eagle eyes focused on the bottom line: the more trees sold, the bigger the payday.
There were numerous kiosks (mostly owned by the Kevin Hammer, Scientologist and X-Mas tree tycoon) that staff hearty Northerners for effect, mostly from Quebec and Montreal, to sell trees 24/7 until Christmas Eve.
They brave extreme temperatures and sparse living conditions in order to make a good sum of money and possibly experience a bit of NYC. The Christmas tree vendors are protected by an antiquated law , which says they are allowed to sell on the sidewalk as long as they have the consent of the building they are in front of.
The vendors barter for the use of bathrooms, access to electricity, and rely on the community's kindness for taking the edge off of cramped and difficult living arrangements. In addition, there is no shortage to stories of theft, unreliable partners, or sleep-deprived slip-ups. At my local stand, the 'ninja' had forgotten to display a buried stock of the most beautiful (and pricey) examples, and would be forced to sell them at a potential loss of hundreds of dollars.
But I was on the hunt for those vendors that are special, almost magical individuals who take the annual selling of trees and create a nostalgia-worthy event within the neighborhood.
I was inspired by Patrick's description of a Jane Street vendor, the Romp family, who were adopted by their neighborhood and were extended every kindness imaginable. Their story has, incidentally, been made into a book.
I decided to keep looking.
And then…I found myself on 12th and 2nd Avenue.
Mr. Daniel Lemay and Justin were out opening and bouncily shaking trees for the inquiring masses. They work for a tree farm and operate out of only two locations: the lot on 11th and Avenue A (also in conjunction with a church) and with St. Mark's on 12th.
Mr. Lemay actually begins his work well before he arrives in NYC, and helps the farm to prepare the trees for shipping. This is his eleventh year in this business. He is a freelance web programmer who can afford the time to leave his work for a few weeks and visit the Big Apple. Last year he and Justin were written up in The New York Times Real Estate section after building a duplex building out of found materials. It is a wonderful and thorough article, worth reading again, even if you initially caught it last year.
This year there is no duplex – they have built a log cabin (again, mostly from found materials) that connects to a minivan body as sleeping quarters. Upon closer inspection I found that Mr. Lemay and friends did a beautiful job at weatherproofing with spray foam insulation and the cabin is kept toasty with a small electric heater. They have ample windows to survey their trees, a CD player AND wi-fi, all running off the power line provided by the church. Mr. Lemay provided the tree bark on the exterior, saves the daily cut tree stumps for decoration, and even made a shingled roof from construction shims. Small space. Big style.
He's come to sell trees, make no mistake. But he also had come to spread cheer and wonder and get his 'social fix'. His smile never disappears, nor does he ever falter in his efforts to convince people to sing karaoke holiday songs in exchange for a tree discount. According to him, some people have actually followed through.
His spirit and the effect of the trees on the olfactory sense create a powerful combination for young and old alike. Even though he misses out on spending Christmas with his family in Montreal, he relishes the time he makes the LES his home away from home. Even within the short time spent at his stand, it was easy to see his affection for the job and the neighborhood's affection for him.
Still looking for a tree? Here's a long list from Gothamist: Want to recommend a vendor?