This year I got smart. I used the internet to search good deals on fresh trees in Manhattan. Only every single entry suggested somewhere in Queens or Staten Island. Tough for those of us with a UK driver’s license and no car.
Then there’s Home Depot….$30 for the tree, $75 for the delivery. Unless you’re buying a new dishwasher. Then it’s half price. A typical NYC bargain. So I enlisted someone to drive me out there. Not a single tree left. Some needles and a sign in the parking lot where they were. It looked like December 27th.
In my hood they’ve got one of those stalls on Lexington… the wreaths and ribbons, the stand, the huge LED sign across the fence reminding us---canned corny Christmas music blaring from mounted speakers….trees divided by the little heated house—one side the Douglas firs and the cheapies…the other side the balsams…$100 and up. Around the corner a few rejects chained to a wooden post like old horses, waiting it out. The yellow-tags. A tall one in there… no branches in the mid-section, losing its needles—my kind of tree. I offer to take it off their hands. 'Seventy bucks,' the man with the graying ponytail informs me. He can see from my coat that I’m not bidding on a balsam, but he resents everyone in Manhattan. After all he’s wearing an orange jumpsuit and selling Christmas trees on a street corner. Inside the house the guys have ordered take-out. Sushi. I guess tips are good.
I turn and wait it out.
December 21. Actually December 22nd…2 AM. The reject pile is growing. It’s the coldest night of the year. Wind…freezing rain. The night shift is asleep in the pickup. My son suggested he could pick them off and no one would notice. I give him the look. They’re fucking TREES, he snaps. And somewhere he’s right. These are offerings of nature. Someone cut them down in their prime, and is now asking to be paid for such an offense. He should be punished.
But I’m still a buyer. And the guy knows I’m a beggar. I can’t use the ‘I’ll take it off your hands’ approach. I can’t imply it’s for a poor family who can’t afford it, because that’s the truth, and it’s for us.
I knock lightly on the cab window. The guy opens his eyes, rolls the window dow about an inch. 'I told you yesterday,' his look says…'I can get $75 for that tree.' He is not getting out of a warm truck for the likes of me.
The overnight crosstown bus passes me…driver stops and calls out. Many nights he and I are alone on this bus when I come from work. He greets me… 'Would you be willing to let me on this bus with a tree?' 'Mama—for you? Anything!' he assures me. Merry Christmas.
I move on. The Second Avenue Subway-construction mess has pretty much wrecked business for the vendors there….but from a funky old bar, the smell of Christmas as a few college-aged kids spill out onto the street. They are heading uptown. I approach them…'Anybody know where I can buy a reasonable tree in this neighborhood?' 'Sure,' they say. 'Up around 104th. We’ll walk you.' So off we go uptown. They are from New Hampshire…good kids… at 101st they turn off and I’m on my own. The streets are deserted except a couple of homeless guys collecting cardboard and cans.
The blocks are long… across the street is the Projects…colored lights everywhere. I wonder if Benefit Cards buy trees. Lights. Anyway, at 103rd, I catch sight of a row of evergreen… tall, great trees… both sides of the sidewalk. A white guy with a southern accent in a grungy old parka comes out…a beard…my age…grey. Tall. I ask him about prices…$55, he tells me… $45 over here. Literally one fourth of the ones at Lexington. I pick out a 9-footer—- thin, but great bone structure. How about $40? 'Done,' he says. Merry Christmas. Saws off the end, wraps it up, and shows me how to balance it across my arms. If I can make it to the crosstown, I’m home free.
But this is tough work. Suddenly…across the street, I hear a rhythmic tapping sound in the silent night. There on the projects playground, a boy… 2:30 AM…in the freezing mist, the slippery pavement.. in sweats and a hoodie…his parka hooked onto the fence-links, shooting…dribbling… dodging… back and forth.. rebounding, hooking, weaving..around his invisible defender ..jumping… his breath in bursts of mist... Suddenly I had a jolt…—like the thrill might be gone everywhere… but here it is on this deserted,freezing icy 2 AM court. A kid, feeling the Kobe Bryant rush…..not a soul watching…...maybe he won’t make it but he is dreaming about it…... that feeling... 11 days off from school and it's the first night... and Christmas coming and you might get something.. Knicks tickets…Jordans. I could have stood there all night... but I had to carry my tree home.
And suddenly I had the strength of an old Atlas. With the scent of pine in my frozen nostrils, I walked back and all the way up the crosstown hill. Busdriver honked as he passed. I was home free, just like those dumb Walton old-style holiday films. Me and the tree. The kid and his basketball. Oh spirit of Santa, I think, as I drape my old strands of colored lights on my still freezing symbol of holiday and Vermont nature…bring that kid something good. Bring him a future-- a winning shot,--the never-ending dream of Christmas. Amen.