If you read my previous post I had just accepted a short term job in New York City to sell Christmas trees. I walked to my work site after an impromptu meeting with the big boss man. As I walked back I tried to remember my basic knowledge of Christmas trees. Most of this knowledge was from my own experiences as a kid climbing trees and living through a Christmas with live trees. My family liked blue spruce trees, I was familiar with white and scotch pines, and I remembered Douglass fir trees were a bit wimpy at holding heavy ornaments. That was the entirety of my knowledge of the subject. I soon found out that my immediate job had little to do with selling trees.
I entered the stand at 110th and Broadway and noticed details I missed earlier in the morning. The stand was on the side of a fairly large grocery store called Gristedes. This store was allowing us to use their power, toilets, and part of their frontage on Broadway. As I passed the front window of the store I saw a fully decorated tree near the manager’s office.
Dean and I said our goodbyes and made plans to meet back up when he returned tomorrow night with another load of trees.
I walked up to the hut that Jerry had been sleeping in earlier and knocked on the frame with much less vigor than Dean had applied.
“Hello” I called out, “I’m here to start working. Bill told me to get started as soon as possible.”
As the tarp to the hut opened I saw a skinny big nosed guy a few years older than me get up.
“Don’t come knocking like that when I’m countin’ money,” he spat in a Scranton accent that I was all too familiar with.
“Sorry,” I said, “I just started about 15 minutes ago and I need to know what to do. I’m Time, Don and Bill sent me here to replace the guy that got sent home.”
“No praahblem, I’m Tony and I run the stand while Bill sits in the hut. Get over to the bench and start setting up trees with Lumpy.”
So I walked over to the green bench that was essentially a table with a two v-cuts added to the top to act as a saw horse. A guy, who I assume was Lumpy, was using the bench to attach the bases to the trees. He used the table to hold the bound trees while he sawed the trunks straight then hammered bases to the trees using a claw hammer and three eight-penny nails.
I introduced myself to Lumpy, then I grabbed trees off the pile I created that morning, before feeding them to the table. Lumpy was able to attach a base as fast as I could retrieve a bound tree. I then took the upright tree with the base attached to a holding area. We did this for about an hour before we really talked at all. I jumped in and allowed us both to be as productive as we could. Another guy who I hadn’t met started taking the trees we stood up and moved them into the forest on the sidewalk I noted earlier. He cut the twine binding them then gently spread out the branches.
After we stood all of the trees up, Lumpy and I stopped to clean up and talk a bit. I wanted to know more about the stand and what else we needed to do.
I lit up a smoke and turned to Lumpy and asked him, ”So what is the job like, what else do we have to do?”
Lumpy responded, “They tell me to stand up trees, sweep, and then I do it.”
I responded, ”Yea, I get that, but what else do you do?”
Lumpy repeated what he said earlier but added, “If you mess up they send you to work at the other stands, guard for the night, or if you really mess up you get put on a bus.”
“What happened to the last guy,” I asked, “the one who went home yesterday?”
Lumpy look around before he responded, “He got robbed too many times.”
“So he got robbed at the stand? Were trees stolen or money?” I asked.
Lumpy shot back, “No heee got robbed too many times.” He got robbed on the way home from work every day this week by the same couple of….black guys.” He whispered the last bit.
I soon found out that this conversation was going nowhere fast. Lumpy was a nice enough guy, but he was not given a lot of responsibility at the stand. He seemed a bit slow and was given pure grunt work. I needed to ask Tony or one of the other guys working the stand on what else to do.
By this time Bill was back from breakfast and was talking to Tony and a few others working there. I inquired about the rest of my responsibilities and received some better feedback.
Our main job of course was selling trees. We were to help any potential customers by answering questions about the trees, showing them trees that matched what they were looking for, and whenever possible upsell them on wreaths and stands we also sold. I asked about the tree varieties we sold and what makes them different, special, or more expensive. I picked up the gig quickly and learned about prepping, selling, packaging, and the delivery process.
Once a sale has been made you pulled off the bottom of the tag with the price and type of tree written on it in sharpie. The top of the tag remained on the tree as a receipt for the customer. You handed the tag bottom and the money to the stand manager so he could keep inventory at the end of the day. Then you had to remove the base with a rap of the hammer or hatchet hammer, shove the tree in the bailing funnel, put a fresh cut on the trunk with a bow saw, and then bail the tree for transport with a plastic mesh.
The competitive advantage of Don’s stands over the many others in the city were the types and freshness of the trees we sold. The locations of our stands allowed us to display the trees like a forest and our ability to get and deliver large trees was a big draw.
We were the only company at the time selling Fraser fir trees as well as the other more common trees I mentioned earlier. At the time Frasers were not available in most of the north east. Most of what were called Fraser firs were actually Canadian Balsam. Don traveled to North Carolina every summer and tagged thousands of Fraser firs, then had them delivered in late November. These trees cost us quite a bit more than the others and were sold at a forty to fifty percent premium. The other trees came from the local farm back in Pennsylvania and were comparatively free. We offered delivery as a free service within Manhattan. Doing a delivery was a great option for the tree man to make extra money. You offered to carry the tree for the customer or arrange for future delivery and then set the tree up for them. You could expect five to twenty bucks depending on the tree. This is usually worth the money to the customer as most don’t want to get tree sap and needles all over their clothes. I was already a filthy mess, so that wasn’t a problem.
The problem was my outfit was chosen to keep me warm for twelve hours or more in sub-freezing weather. My typical garb was a pair of long johns under a t-shirt and jeans, under a sweatshirt covered by a Carhart or ski jacket. I also wore a stocking cap, thermal socks, leather work gloves, and work boots.
On a typical delivery I would likely need to walk five blocks, up five flights of stairs, then spend fifteen minutes setting up the tree. Apartments in many parts of New York at the time were heated by central steam heat and were usually way too hot. By the time of my walk back to the stand from a delivery I was sweating profusely and freezing cold at the same time.
We had trucks for delivery for our bigger trees, this was typically a two man job and the truck guys could clean up in tips. Tips were my way to keep from asking Don for an additional advance for food and drinks, but more on those two topics later.
Selling the trees came easy to me. I found that few New Yorkers knew even less than I did about trees, so they believed anything I told them. I didn’t lie to them to sell the trees, but if they had any questions and I didn’t know the answer I just faked it.
The New York customer, however, was very willing to shop around if they felt they might get the tree for a cheaper price elsewhere. So we often had people tell us that our trees were way too much and that they would just wait till we were packing up to get them at a discount. Many came back when they wanted a fresh high quality tree that wouldn’t die the moment it hit their steam heated, dry as the Sahara, ten-story walk up. We also had many repeat customers from previous years. Most remember the place they got their tree last year and where they got a good or bad one.
There were the yearly bargain hunters that came by every day and commented that we were never going to sell out so we should sell to them at a substantial discount.
“Hey Tree Man, you’re going to get stuck with all of those trees if you don’t lower your prices!” was shouted by every tenth passerby.
“I’ll see you on the twenty first, then we’ll see what your prices will be,” one persistent passer by piped up every day.
He finally came to buy on the twentieth of December and said he was ready to deal. I told him the price and offered to knock off 5 bucks because we talked so many times. He offered me twenty bucks for a fifty five dollar tree which I rejected.
He countered with, “How much is it going to cost you to pack it up, put it on the truck and take it back to bumfuck with you.”
I responded, “Less than reducing all of our prices earlier and earlier each year because our customers know if they wait long enough we’ll give it to them for free.”
“Well what are you going to do with them all if you don’t sell em?” He shot back.
“Bill,” I yelled out to the stand manager “This guy wants to know what we are going to do with all of the trees we don’t sell,”
Bill responded instantly “We will just truck them back to the farm and burn them all. Crackle crackle, crackle”
I then informed him that the tree he thinks we couldn’t sell from yesterday was sold and turned over with fresh cut trees from our farm this morning. So this tree was cut fresh yesterday and brought to him so he could have the best tree possible. I wasn’t lying exactly, because we did get a delivery of new trees in that morning, I just don’t know that the one I tried to sell him was one of them. Lumpy might have known.
I eventually sold him the tree at a ten percent discount. He came back the next year and bought another tree, but this time a week earlier.
The job of selling trees was hard work followed by lots of clean up and then boredom. During the work day, early mornings, or late nights there were few people looking to buy a tree. This changed the closer you got to Christmas or on weekends. Most of the day you spent shooting the shit with your crew and watching the people, places, and things you see. You were on the street for more hours than most of the beggars and crack heads.
Here are a few of the types of people I worked and spent time with.
The farmer’s kid who never got out of the county he lived in. These guys went one of two ways, they kept their heads down and worked like animals or they went nuts. The nuts would spend all night getting drunk in the hotel, trying to get hookers, and or buy all of the porn they could find. They weren’t dangerous or troublesome.
The college kid who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty and only wants to work the safe stands. These guys were ok, if a bit too lazy, they were usually good in the high rent districts as they didn’t scare the rich folks.
The older seasonal worker who needs the job for additional money for the holidays. Most of these folks were managers of the stands or temp workers. With a few notable exceptions they were there for the money and worked hard.
People that Don knew from his past that he trusted with big clients. This group was very eclectic and included college professors, truck drivers, and an artist.
Lifers from the nursery that need the extra money and want to get away from the wife and kids. These guys were people like Lumpy, they worked hard but were not very good at solving problems or dealing with the city. The guy who I replaced kept getting mugged for a reason. He showed up to the gig wearing a high school t-shirt, his hunting jacket with the license still attached, and a blaze orange hat. He got mugged because he acted like a tourist and stood out like a blaze orange mark.
Random strangers who might have answered a want-ad or were a friend of a friend who did this last year. This was the wild card group. I knew a few of these guys from high school and they could be ok. Others were complete nightmares. The nightmares had drug habits, looked to buy hot items from the crackheads, and usually spent all of their pay each night at bars, strip clubs, or on the crack.
People like me who ended up there and wanted to make the most of it while dealing with and loving the chaos.
My first week at the stand allowed me to meet and work with several of the types of people I just described. We would spend a lot of time observing the chaos on Broadway at night. There was a constant flow of beggars and crack heads that were hanging around the stand. We were always on the lookout for tree or tool theft, muggings, and people bothering our customers. We eventually built a relationship of sorts with many of the local drug dealers, beggars, and hookers. We occasionally shared a cigarette or shot the shit. Once they knew we would not give them any money or buy any wares from them they backed off. However, every time a new guy arrived to work at the stand he got taken for money or scammed by the same crew of street folks.
The work day at the stand very much depended on where the stand was located and who managed it. The location determined the clientele and the manager determined everything else. I was put on the 110th Street stand for a reason. Dean was and is my best friend and wanted to look out for me. He did this gig for many years before I got involved and this was his stand. Bill the manager was a good guy who wanted the stand to run well. He was chosen because the stand needed a responsible and mature person to deal with the store manager, police, and various city bureaucrats. This location as well as many of the others were won by years or relationship building and could be lost to the competition if any major issues occurred. So the flagship stand was a base of operations on the West side, storage location, and show place for the brand.
The second flagship was on the East side and was a location only someone like Don could have obtained. The stand was in front of the Armory between 66th and 67th and Lexington. This area was extremely wealthy and only a block from Park Avenue. This stand specialized in really large trees, high service levels from the staff, and lots of inventory to choose from. The manager was smart, well organized, and an-Army veteran. His staff were all safe looking college kids and a few grunts that stayed away from the customers. This stand was the money maker and could generate eight thousand dollars a day or more.
The other stands were a mixed bag. There were several stands that were test cases to see if they could generate revenue. These stands became regulars if they made money or were closed if they failed to. Other stands were smaller and leaner because of the layout of the site and required a smaller work force. They could still make a lot of money and were usually retained each year. Overall there were around six stands in the city depending on the year.
I had the opportunity during my first year to float to several stands. At the time I assumed this was because I was such a hard worker, but in reality I discovered that I was sent in by Don to monitor and curtail bad behaviors by the managers or staff.
Don would patrol the stands day and night during the season. Don would enforce cleanliness, customer courtesy, safety, and work ethic issues he saw with an immediate and brutal response. He was notorious for sneaking upon the stands and addressing any issues he saw on whomever was closest to the problem. If the person was the problem then it was even more brutal. Each stand kept a lookout for the Ford F-150 that Don patrolled in.
One morning Don was on such a patrol to the 110th street stand. Thankfully I was pretty busy at the time and not playing catch the hammer with Jerry. I was selling away and then standing up new trees as space opened up. Bill was in the hut keeping warm and watching the money. Jerry and Lumpy were taking turns going to lunch and helping me sell. Don snuck up behind me as I was talking to a customer about a blue spruce. I heard a clicking of ice inside a plastic handled coffee mug as he stood behind me.
Don asked the customer, “So is Timey taking care of you today?”
“Yes he has been very helpful, are these your trees?” the customer asked.
Don said, laying it on thick, “Why yes they are, they were cut down just yesterday from my little farm in Pennsylvania.”
“Timey”, Don said, “Once you are done with this customer come see me in the hut.”
I finished up the sale and met Don and Bill in the hut. He was in the middle of a conversation with Bill while sipping on the coffee mug every few seconds. Bill was arguing mildly with Don about needing another person.
I interjected, “Hello Don, what did you want to see me about?”
Don responded, ”Well fella, I’m going to have you help out a few of our other stands this week before the big weekend coming up. We will have more people coming in on Friday, so you can come back to Billy’s stand.”
I quickly replied, “Ok Don, whatever you want, you’re the boss.”
“Splendid Fella, come to the truck with me and I’ll drive you to Milt’s stand.”
Don and I entered the truck double parked on 110th. He sat down, opened the top of the coffee mug an reached under the seat and pulled out a bottle of Passport scotch, filled the cup to about one half full, filled the rest with diet Coke from a can in the cupholder, and replaced the mug lid. He then lit up a Kool and turned to me.
“Would you like a Menthol fella?” Don asked.
“Sure Don,” I responded. “Why does Milt’s stand need more help?”
“You’ll see Timey,” Don grumbled.
We arrived at Milt’s stand on Columbus Circle. The stand was a quarter the size of the stand I left. Don drove past the stand then double parked a street away. There was one worker visible sitting on the cutting box smoking a cigarette. He was surrounded by a few trees standing on bases, with several laying on the ground, there was a large pile of bound trees leaning against the back of the hut. There was a mess of branches, trunk stubs, and bailing netting around the stand and across the sidewalk way. Don briskly walked over to the stand approaching the lone worker from behind.
Don loudly asked the worker through clenched teeth, “Terry, where is Milt and why the hell are you fucking lollygagging while the stand is a godawful mess?”
Terry stammered, “Milt and Matt is getting a coffee, I was gonna clean up once they got back.”
Don grabbed Terry’s long greasy mullet and pulled it like he was teasing a girl on the playground.
He growled, “Clean it up now, you pissant. Don’t let me see this stand like this again or you’re going to be on the next bus home.”
Terry quickly got up and started sweeping the stand, shook his head, then straightened his hat.
Right around this time two guys I assume are Milt and Matt arrive at the stand. Milt looks like a six foot four beefy redneck version of Rob Zombie wearing full coveralls and a dirty ball cap. Matt is a lanky and greasy looking redneck with a weird limp. There was no coffee to be seen.
Milt looks nervous and twitchy as he approaches, Matt is a bit bleary eyed.
Milt started speaking as he approached the stand, “Hey Don, sorry I was going to the bathroom and calling my wife.”
Don responded, “Milton, this stand looks unacceptable and the sales won’t improve if you’re not here keeping the display looking good. I’m leaving Timey here to help you get the stand set back up and presentable. I’ll be back tonight and things better be up to our standards. Timey, I’ll see you later fella.”
Don walked back to his truck and left me at the stand with Milt, Matt, and Terry.
I walked up to Milt and introduced myself.
“Hi Milt, I’m Timeloose, what do you want me to do to help.”
Milt walked up to me and got in my face. I could smell the strong odor of trees, weed, and something acrid.
Milt softly answered, “I want you to go help Don suck his own dick and get the fuck out of my shit.”
He then laughed loudly showing his tobacco stained teeth. It was not a sane looking laugh.
He then said, “Go get working setup with Terry and we’ll be by to help later.”
I did what Milt asked of me and he and Matt walked back into the tent.
Milt did help us get the stand back into shape and we made quite a few sales after the locals got off of work. Milt and I seemed to be getting along better, he was obviously smoking weed in the tent with Matt who ended up being his brother. I had no issues with this or anything else I saw there that day. I imagine that was Don’s point of dropping me off there. I was in effect a watchdog. Milt had started getting antsy as Don arrived to inspect the stand about eight hours later. I was sent to another stand on the East Side the next day, but Milt and my story was not over.
One could and did get a bit crazy and short tempered after a day of dealing with the constant stress of asshole customers, street people, the long hours, and the sheer noise. Most of the folks working at the stands previously never spent more than a day in a city. The constant flow of people and noises could be overwhelming. Our only refuge was the fine hotel we slept in.
Hotel Living at its Finest or Alternatively Welcome to Hell
Don promise me a very nice hotel.
I walked back to the hotel from my first day on the job at eleven at night. I was working on being up for over thirty hours. I needed to grab some junk food, smokes, and see if I could get a beer from one of the corner bodegas. I was told earlier in the day that no one would ask for ID. Tony and I walked back together as I would be staying in his room this first night. We walked into the Korean grocery and I went right to the beer case. That was the night I discovered the magic of Old English 800. I picked up one forty ounce bottle.
“Time,” Tony said, “You’re going to need another bottle if you want to be able to sleep tonight.”
“What the hell do you mean by that?” I responded. “I’m beat and one bottle should get me a nice buzz going.”
“You’ll see, just get the extra bottle bud.” He replied back.
I quickly answered. “Whatever, it’s my first night in the city so I’ll spurge a bit.”
I walked apprehensively to the counter, I was 19 and not expecting the Korean gentleman at the counter to just ring me up without an ID check.
“You want more forty?” The clerk asked.
“No, two is good,” I responded.
“Tree guys all get lots of forty. Try Crazy Horse like your friend.” The clerk motioned to Tony.
I was now getting a bit worried. Why were are all of the tree guys buying up all of the malt liquor in town.
Tony and I paid for our beer and snacks and walked the rest of the way to the hotel. We arrived at the hotel about 5 minutes later.
The hotel was called the Windermere and was at 666 West End Drive.
Tony turned to me and smiled, “Welcome to Hell, Time.”
The Hotel Windermere was a big old building that appeared to have seen better days. The lobby was shabby and covered in what looked like years of filth and cigarette smoke. Everything seemed to have a coating of a tan scummy film. The lighting didn’t help as there was several half lit yellowed fixtures on the ceiling bathing the lobby in a dim shadowy tint.
As Tony and I approached the front desk a man with a “Habib” name tag grumbled as we approached with bags of beer.
Habib commented with a strong Indian accent as we walked by, “You Tree man need to keep it down, no more complaints this year from my tenants.”
Tony ignored Habib, turned to me and said, “He can go fuck himself, the tenants are louder than we are and half of them are hookers and junkies.”
We approached the lobby elevator and I noted there were twenty-two floors. We got in and Tony told me we were on the sixteenth floor Room 9. All of the rooms nearby were all tree men. Don’s room was on the eighteenth floor, Room 22. We exited the ancient elevator that still had the old operator lever attached with a set of buttons above it. The hallway was as clean as the lobby, but with less lighting and a funk of bad cooking and stale cigarette smoke.
As we approached the room there was a roar of voices and laughter coming from the surrounding rooms. We got to Room 9, Tony got out a key, and opened the door. As the door opened there were about ten people sitting in various states of dress eating takeout food, smoking cigarettes, and drinking forties of malt liquor. All of the windows were wide open with no screens in them.
I asked Tony with concern, “How many of us are in here?”
Tony responded, “Twelve or so, two in each bedroom, and eight in the living room.” Two guys are working guard duty.”
I asked, “Who gets the bedrooms?”
He responded, “Managers and people like me who’ve been doing this for a bunch. Take one of them empty cots.”
I laughed a bit and said, “I’m glad I got the second forty Tony, it’ll be tough sleeping in a room with all these assholes snoring and farting.”
Tony laughed back and said, “Bud, the second or third bottle is so you can ignore the roaches and rats crawling around once the lights go off. Once your shit gets here, keep it closed or you’ll bring some of those cocksuckers back with you.”
As I adjusted to being inside I started noticing the smell of twelve hardworking people in a small space. I also started to realize why the windows were open. It had to be ninety degrees in there. I introduced myself to the drunk and getting drunker roommates. We all shared tales of the city that day. As we all got drunker and more rowdy. We started talking about Don, the stand managers, and some of the more fucked up people in the crew. I came to find out Don drinks all day every day while he is here and never really sleeps. There are rumors of him taking crank or pills to keep himself awake.
As I finished the second forty I realized I had no covers, sleeping bag, or pillow. The others around me started passing out one at a time. I decided to try to do the same. I balled up my coat and used it as a pillow, but as I laid down on the cot a brisk wind blew over me from the open window. I put the coat back on but as soon as the wind stopped it became hot as hell. Thankfully the second forty kicked in fully and I passed out.
I awoke from my drunken slumber every hour or so as I heard a car alarm, squealing brakes on a bus, or someone yelling outside. At some point I looked out the window as the sun was rising and I noticed that the hotel was a big tube, with rooms on the inside of the hall looking at the other side of the hotel. There was a roof above the first floor lobby with a ton of garbage on it.
Dean arrived the next day and met me at the hotel with my stuff. He included a towel, sleeping bag, and clothes. He stayed for the rest of the week as it was getting close to crunch time for the stands. It was good to get a change of clothes and I looked forward to a shower.
I entered the shower after peeling off the ratty cloths I had on. I was worried I might not have any hot water, I was wrong. The faucet seemed to produce live steam even with the cold water on full. After creating a few first degree burns I thought I figured out the right mixture. I quickly hopped in and started hosing off. I found that most of my face, hands and arms were covered with pine pitch that would not come off with the soap and water. After this realization, I discovered that nothing in this world is constant, especially this fucking shower. The raw steam returned and scorched my junk then became ice cold. I was done being thermally shocked and gave up on getting any cleaner.
Each day I would repeat the same ritual of work, fortyies, drunken madness with my co-workers, followed by shock showers. The weekend after Deaner returned we got into our third forty of the night, we were now drinking the Crazy Horse as recommended by the Korean shop owner. The room was littered with empties and takeout containers. Dean thought it would be funny if he tossed an empty from the sixteenth floor. He and I turned the light off trying to keep the locals from suspecting where the bottle came from. He and I looked out the window and down into the black pit of the hotel center. We each grabbed an empty and tossed it towards the center to be sure it didn’t go through someone’s window below.
The bottles sounded like a double barrel shotgun blast that reverberated for way too long. We both pissed ourselves laughing while hiding like children. This became a ritual as well, we limited our fun to one bottle a night. Others heard of our “Forty Bomb” idea and unfortunately it spread and escalated.
A few nights later Dean and I were drinking with another group in their room on the eighteenth floor. Two guys, Brian and Greg, were staying in a much smaller room with another four guys. One of these guys was named Lenny. Lenny was a partier that was drinking himself out of college. Brian, Greg, and Lenny worked at the high end stand on the East Side and were clearing hundreds a day in tips. They were also spending their money as fast as they could make it at strip clubs and bars. Lenny was out at the Dive Bar on Amsterdam this night and every night. Greg and Brian had a few with Lenny then came back to the hotel to drink some forties with Dean and I.
We told them about the forty bomb idea a few days earlier, they started throwing all garbage out the windows on to the roof of the lobby. We were shooting the shit for an hour or so, when we brought up our bomb from last night.
“Hey Brian,” I asked, “Did you hear our Forty Bomb last night? It dropped around two thirty.”
He shot back, “You’re all a bunch of pussies, we perfected the bomb.” “We call ours the airstrike. Three precision bottles, one from each window.”
I was about to ask for more details, but then Lenny came back from the Dive Bar. Lenny was wearing a thick puffy ski jacket and a stocking cap that he violently whipped off as soon as he got inside the room. Lenny was plowed drunk, he stumbled into the living room where we were discussing the bomb and airstrike with Dean, Brian, and Greg. Lenny gathered about six empties from the table and hugged them like they were his long lost mother, arched his back, walked them over to the window, stumbled, then dropped them all at once out into the night. The noise was a tremendous series of shots that seem to last for minutes. It was followed by yells and screams from the rest of the hotel.
Lenny turned to the group and slurred, “Nucleeer Baahms.”
We stopped dropping bombs after the Nucleeer option was executed by Lenny, this is why we can’t have nice things.
Next: Part 3…