207th and Broadway
I used to sell Christmas trees on the streets of New York City in the early 1990s. I had just started teaching at Concordia. I was not tenured, but a contractually limited employee. It was insecure work and I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be an academic. I would finish teaching in the beginning of December, take a train and join my partner on 207th and Broadway. I was much younger.
The arrival of the trees into New York City on flat bed trucks from tree farms in upstate New York, Vermont, Quebec, New Brunswick was a sign that the holiday season had started. We lived in a trailer for a month waiting for the daily deliveries from our Vermont suppliers who hired many Quebeckers. The A&P let us use their sidewalk- and toilet- for a price.
New Yorkers liked us, or at least we imagined that they did. Those that stopped to chat, on their way to somewhere else, thought we were exotic. We would regale them whenever possible with slightly embellished tales from our adventurous Canadian lives. We dressed the part. We transformed the grey sidewalks into a forest. We were almost as popular as Santa. Or so we thought.
207th and Broadway was an amazing neighbourhood, just south of the Bronx. It had been predominantly Irish, but had recently become home to a large demographic of Cubans. It was great for business. Catholics all, they loved Christmas and they loved the trees. Real trees. Our customers didn’t want any cheap artificial plasticy garbage-tree from the corner hardware store. They wanted the smell of their very own tree in their very own home.
We got to know the locals. The assistant manager of the A&P right in front of our stand became our friend. The man who owned the newsstand next door. Pops, stationed beside our trailer, sold hot dogs from a cart and hardly spoke at all. I thought his name was Frank because of the sign on his cart, “Franks Rolls”. We eventually learned that his real name was Peter. Every morning we were greeted by the guy who hawked the “Daily News” and insisted on singing the paper’s name to the tune of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue”. Hearing this song puts his voice in my head to this day. Then there were the regulars at the bar next door, many able to recall the early history of the hood, some bitter at its changes. A retinue of very old ladies would come by each day pushing shopping carts that were as tall as they. Dressed up in their finest they elegantly strolled through the trees on their way to buy a potato or two.
For a short time they were our neighbours, our intimates, our only friends in the city. We shared their sidewalks. Stationary tourists parked on a New York City street corner, we watched the world pass by while we waited for customers and swept away the needles that would fall on the ground from our trees. We had to keep moving to keep away the cold, although we could not really travel anywhere. We never made it to any other neighbourhood in the city during this time. We were tethered to the trees. We learned the rhythms and routines of the corner and we adjusted our schedule to the patterns of life around our little universe: the tree stand.
It was hard work. It was dangerous work. I could not do it for many years.
During the day we readied the stand, unloaded the trees, waited for customers and then bargained, bargained, bargained. We baled trees to protect them on the journey from stand to home. We fashioned wreaths out of branches cut from the bottom of the trees we sold. Nothing would be wasted. Money could be made and we knew the time to Christmas was short. The value of a tree significantly declines after the 25th of December. We were on a deadline. We pushed packages of “tree life” for a buck that we guaranteed would extend the life of each and every tree. I have no idea if it really worked but we were very convincing. We gave detailed instructions on caring for your tree. We got to know the properties of the trees on our little lot. Scotch pine, that smelled like cat piss to me. The traditional balsam, soft and silky to the touch. Douglas firs. Expensive. Rare. The dreaded blue spruce with their razor-sharp needles. How I hated to touch them.
We slept like babies every night exhausted from a day on the street, surrounded by the night sounds of New York. Garbage trucks. Gunshots. Tires screeching. Music blaring from passing cars. Sirens.
When I go to the Jean-Talon market at Christmas time and I catch a whiff of pine and see the sales folk I feel a complicity with them. I want to show off my tree knowledge, throw around a bit of tree-talk like “hey, they that one is a real basketball” or “wow, look at the double crown on that baby”. But I mostly say nothing.