The People that You Meet Each Day
I don’t want to spend time creating and describing stereotypes of New Yorkers to everyone. This has been done ad nauseam in TV, Movies, and books. I’ll stick with some observations and unique people I met during this time.
One year I worked at the high rent East Side stand at 66th and 67th and Lexington. This introduced me to a new type of customer the entitled New York upper class twit. The upper class twit has a lot of money and doesn’t consider the workers and staff around them as intelligent or worthy of respect. I sold trees to many of this type and delivered them to their homes. This was an amazing opportunity for me to experience some posh apartments, incredible art, and to get called a moron. One such couple of twits walked up to the stand and began verbally pissing all over the wreaths that we had for sale, then made fun of the dress and general condition of our staff. I heard this in passing but decided that I’ll try to make a sale. The couple was wearing flashy clothes and jewelry. They were not gaudy, but the gems and watches were very expensive looking.
I approached them and introduced myself, “Hello, I’m Time, what can I help you with today.”
The man responded, “We need a tree that doesn’t look like it came from the side of the LIE.”
I started my pitch, “Well sir these trees were all cut within the last few days and are very fresh, I can pull a few out so you can see them better. What size are you looking for?”
The woman replied, “We need the biggest tree you have, we have a very high ceiling. It’s a very spacious home.”
“OK,” I countered. “Just so you know we have up to twenty five foot trees. They will take quite the effort to show you. So I would like you to be very sure of the height before we pull them out.”
The man replied with a snotty tone, “Ohhh we are sure what will and will not fit in OUR apartment. Show us the biggest tree you have.”
“Ok then,” I said stifling my distain, “Let me get some help and we will open the twenty-five footer.”
I talked to the boss and got his permission to move and open the big Fir tree. We had to close off most of the sidewalk as we unbound the monster. As we unfurred the tree I watched the couple’s eye widen. They walked around it while maintaining their distance from the branches and especially the folks trying to hold it up.
“So what do you think, is it big enough for you?” I asked. “Do you want us to bind it up and deliver it for you?” It’ll be Three hundred and fifty dollars with another fifty for the installation and stand.”
She responded, “Well do you have something else for us to look at?”
I commented, “We do, but they are quite a bit smaller and less impressive.”
The couple walked aside and began to deliberate. I went back to the poor schlubs holding up the monstrosity and told them to relax and try to get it out of the way. The couple argued, with the woman seemingly pouting for a bit.
Finally they returned and the woman spoke. “We’ll take it, we need to move a few things to prepare, but we want it delivered this afternoon so we can decorate it before our party.”
“Ok, please pay the stand manager, tell him your information, and I’ll begin getting your tree ready for transport and delivery.”
The tree was funneled into the special large bailer that we had at this stand and eventually loaded onto the truck. We had to get our delivery guy with the big truck and three guys to move the beast. I went on the delivery to help with the logistics and set up. I was sure to bring a saw, tools, a broom, trash bags, and a forty-foot tape measure.
We approached the building and had to double park the truck while unloading the tree. The home entrance was thankfully on the first floor. We met the help at the door, the couple was nowhere to be seen. We were able to get the thing into the door around the furniture, pieces of art and pictures on the white walls. The living room did have a big ceiling, but it sure didn’t look like it was over twenty five feet. The walls were lined from chest high to ceiling with built in book shelves. There had to be several hundred books lining the walls. The couple arrived and I told them the tree was too big for the ceiling. I measured it and showed it to them. They stood in disbelief, but couldn’t deny the number I showed them. Twenty four feet was the ceiling-to-floor height, if I added the stand then the tree was two feet too tall. The only options were to take it back, cut it, or cut a hole in the ceiling. I relayed these options to the couple and they began whining and complaining to me.
I reminded them that the stand manager would not take a return without keeping half of the money and they would not have a tree for their party tonight. So they decided to have us cut it. I informed them that once we cut the trunk it’ll be a much different tree. It will lose most of the fullest branches. They agreed and then the work began.
As the men cut the trunk I started making small talk with my customers.
“You have a beautiful home I really love all of the books you have. What types of books do you collect? Who is the big reader you or your partner?”
The man responded, “They were picked for their colors, I don’t know where they came from.”
“Well…,” I responded with even less respect than I thought possible, “they sure do look wonderful.”
The tree was cut down to size and stood up after about forty-five minutes, it looked quite ugly now with big open spots. We cleaned up and I started to leave. The man of the house gave his maid a fifty dollar bill and she gave it to me. I was done wasting our collective time, I thanked the maid and turned to the couple who had a confused and disappointed look on their face.
I ended our interaction with a snarky pitch, “Well, thank you for your business. I look forward to seeing you next year, however I would recommend a twenty foot tree. It would be perfect in your space.”
Yorkers could surprise you. I was becoming hardened and disenchanted with people in general after several days in the city. One evening an older couple I had seen walking to the store every other day stopped at the stand. They wanted a Douglas fir that needed to be a certain size and shape. They had a picture with them and a tape measure. They were enthusiastic, respectful, and seemed to be having a great time with the process. They had a strong German accent but kept talking to me and each other in English. They picked out the tree that met their requirements and I packed it up and delivered it. Turns out they lived right across from the stand. As we were walking to their apartment I asked them why they had such a specific tree in mind. The gentleman indicated that they were from Germany and left for New York after the war. Every year they would try to find a tree that matched the one they left behind on their farm and recreate the same look of the picture they had. I stayed for a schnapps and chocolate as they showed me the other trees they had already decorated, this was their third. They let me know that the tree I sold them was the closed they had found to the tree they left behind.
We Tree Men also experienced kindness that could thaw our freezing hearts as the holiday got closer. We had people bring us hot cocoa, eggnog, cookies, food, and brandy. It was those people that made me forget the others for a time.
The People that You Don’t Meet Each Day
There are some people I met that blew my mind. They were different in one way or another from the others I’ve outlined previously.
The first encounter of an exceptional person was one of beauty. I saw many an attractive person, male and female, but one just took my breath away. I was working the ritzy stand at the time and was shooting the shit with one of my coworkers. Then I saw her. She was at the far end if the Armory and approaching the stand of trees. She was six foot tall or more with brown knee high boots. She had brown or tan leggings that seemed to go on forever like the legs inside. My eyes traveled up to a most impressive and proportional waist and chest surrounded by a sweater and leather jacket. I saw her face and it was perfect in the furry hat she was sporting. I immediately pushed a co-worker out of my way and approached the woman and some dude that was with her. I didn’t know he existed and completely ignored him. She was looking at a ten foot Fraser fir and I immediately pulled it out for her to get a better look. The tree that is.
“Hello miss, how can I help you!!” I sang.
She responded in sweet Australian accent, “I’m looking for a tree for my apartment.”
“Well you came to the right place,” I responded stupidly.
She repled, “I want this one and I want it delivered this afternoon to my apartment.”
I told her way too quickly, “I’ll be sure to deliver it personally.”
She gave the stand manager her delivery info and the money. I told him there was no way I wasn’t going to deliver this tree.
He saw my eyes and said, “Keep it in your pants, Time.”
I proceeded to wrap and carry the tree to the customer’s apartment with extreme urgency. I didn’t want to miss her and deal with whomever the dude was. I arrived at the Park Avenue and 68th street apartment slightly out of breath. I entered and told the doorman where I was going and took the elevator up a few floors.
I ring the doorbell and instead of the beauty I met earlier an older Puerto Rican woman answers the door with a Que?
I responded, “I’m here to deliver and set up a Christmas tree.”
In a Rosie Perez like accent she responded with, “Meez Mak Fearsom wants it set up over there in the corner by her picture.”
Recognition of the photo on the wall was instantaneous and the previous interaction and reaction of mine flooded back with new insight.
I was mentally kicking myself, “You were talking to supermodel fool, one you have lusted over since you were fourteen.”
Inset Elles apartment pic.
There was no sign of Elle MacPherson or her Australian accent. Only the picture on the wall and an old Puerto Rican woman. I received a twenty dollar tip from the housekeeper and went on my way.
The second person that stuck with me was exceptionally shocking for a very different reason. I was working a typical day on a new stand. This one was on the Upper East Side just shy of Spanish Harlem. It was an area in transition. There was a ton of bars in the area and a distinct border between new and old housing. Gentrification was occurring and they were knocking down projects and putting up a new high rise apartment building. There were complaints from half of the people in the area that our prices were too high. This was likely the new and old residents’ different demographics.
An old woman in her early seventies approached the stand. She was wearing a babushka, a blue coat, and was towing a shopping basket. She looked just like my beloved grandmother. My grandmother is one of the sweetest and most caring persons I have met. Every word from her comes from the heart. I smiled as I approached the old woman.
I said sweetly, “Hello ma’am, how are you this beautiful day? How can I help you?”
She started to respond before the word day left my lips with, “You rotten cocksuckers should be ashamed of yourselves. How can you sell these fuckin trees for this much? Who do you think you are? Who’s going to buy this shit?”
I had no response and the look of shock, disappointment and sadness on my face must have rattled her. She turned away and kept walking while she muttered more of the same vile stuff.
Crack, Crime, and Co-Workers
So it was hinted at earlier that crack and crime were ever present in New York at the time. There were good reasons why the guys at the stands were doing transactions in the huts. Strong armed robbery, muggings, stick ups, and theft were everywhere. There were shards of glass vials and pipes all over most alcoves and alleys.
Crack heads were always looking for a buck to feed the pipe. They did this by various methods. There was the straight forward begging in front of a place of business, volunteering to help a passerby or customer in exchange for a small fee, theft, mugging, and selling of random ill-gotten goods. The stand was a natural place for all of these approaches. These folks are always around you like seagulls following a fishing boat. Pedestrians needed or wanted to slow down from their brisk city walk to look at or buy the trees, there was cash being exchanged in the street, there were distracted people both working and patronizing the stand, and finally there was stuff to steal and people at the stand to buy.
You needed to sell while still keeping your eye on the crackhead skulking around the stand. This was very nerve racking and wore you out. A poorly placed fuck off to the crackhead could kill your sale as could the crackhead annoying or scaring the customer. We were on a city street not on private property, so there was no legal recourse for us to tell the crackhead, beggar, or crazy transvestite to leave. There were a few ways we dealt with this. One way was to have a blocker on your stand. One of the bigger and less sales savvy employees would be on one or each end of the stand to intimidate the street person. They would stop them, confront them, and most importantly let them know they were noticed. This would encourage the unwanted person to move on to the next spot for the day.
I walked home from the stand with several hundred dollars in my pocket every night. The seagulls kept an eye out for the guys leaving the stands because they knew we had cash. Some of us walked together or took cabs. I refused cabs because I needed my money and I had two legs. When I left the stands I kept vigilant, mumbled a lot, and in general acted crazy. I also had a very illegal six-inch hunting knife strapped to my hip. My appearance and awareness kept the random crackhead from bothering me. I passed rocks being smoked in and around the dark places on my walk to the hotel. It seemed to be everywhere especially around the dicier stands like the East Village. I would take the bus or subway when necessary because they were only a dollar twenty-five for a token at the time.
Working at the stand at night, or even worse overnight, meant guard duty. You were by yourself against the neighborhood. This meant keeping aware of your surroundings, setting up and consolidating the stand for security, creating sight lines, and staying awake. I had to regularly chase dudes trying to run away with a tree or trying to hide, piss, or sleep behind the piles. I started a habit of juggling or throwing a hatchet or knife into a cut log every time an unsavory looking person would come into my awareness. This kept the crazies away better than more lights or additional people.
With all of the crack related chaos out on the streets, Hotel Hell should have been a refuge for me. This was not always the case.
My second year I decided to go to the city early before my final exams. I needed the extra money and I had the idiotic expectation of being able to study during my time in the Hotel or at the stand during slow periods. After four days I would need to travel back home and take my chemistry, engineering dynamics and differential equations final. Then Dean was going to take be back to the city with a load of fresh trees.
Don agreed to my plan and asked me to take cash back to his wife during my travels back with the company van. I had to work at whatever stands needed me and stay in whatever rooms were available at the Windermere.
I arrived the day after Thanksgiving and was put on Milt’s stand with his brother and some other Hilljack nutcase. They appeared to be in good spirits as I approached and informed me that I would be staying in their room this week.
We worked the full day and got along relatively well. As the night guard got there Milt had to go meet Don and the rest of the managers, Matt and the Hilljack told me they were going to grab some food and drinks at a bar. I went to the corner and picked up iced tea and pizza prior to studying at the hotel. No forty bombs for this college guy. They gave me the room key and told me to let them in once they returned from dinner.
I ate my food while studying for two hours. About this time Matt and the Hilljack were knocking on the door like a drug raid was underway. I checked the peephole and let them in. They passed me without a word carrying bags of beer and entered the bedroom which I assumed was Milt’s. The bedroom had a table and chairs with deck of cards and a very full ashtray on it. They closed the door and I forgot about them for a bit as I tried to study in the living room on my cot. I ignored the sound of clanging beer bottles, laughter and coughing, the strong whiff of weed coming from the bedroom, and something else I couldn’t put my finger on.
Milt arrived back from the stand managers meeting and aggressively knocked on the door for me to let him in. I stood up from my cot as the bedroom door shot open. Matt hurried to the front door and let his brother in. From my view of the bedroom I could see the Hilljack sucking on a crack stem with a butane lighter at the other end. There were four vials of crack on the table and two were empty.
Matt hurried in to the bedroom ignoring me, Milt did the same except for a quick back and forth look to the bedroom then to me. The door was slammed and I considered my situation.
I said to myself, “I’m working with a bunch of goddammed crackheads, I’ve got finals to study for, and now I have to worry about getting rolled in my sleep.”
As I was contemplating my fate there was arguing in the bedroom. I couldn’t make out most of it, but it included Milt and the Hilljack going back and forth about not wanting to go to 42 Street again. Just then the door shot open and the Hilljack trotted out the door with Matt. Milt came out of the bedroom with the look in his eyes I had become familiar with dealing with the street crackheads. I was a hyper aware that he was staring at me.
Milt came out of the bed room toward me, I stood up to face him. He then pulled a folding pocket knife out of his pocket opened it and confronted me. My knife was in my work pants under my cot. Milt stopped half way between me and the door to the hotel room.
Milt wildly spat, “You tell anyone about what you see in this room or on the stand and I’ll cut your motherfucking throat in your sleep.”
I stuttered and said, “Milt buddy, I don’t give a flying shit about what you guys do as long as you chill the fuck out. What you do is your business, now put the godammed knife away.”
Milt smiled at me like the first day at the stand and said, “I’m just fuckin with ya, Time. Come have a beer and some weed and relax. You work too hard.”
I drank a beer, took a toke or two from a joint, and went back to my cot. This must have convinced him that I wasn’t a rat, so Milt relaxed and smoked the rest of the rocks. He told me Matt and the Hilljack fucked up and only got a few rocks. He sent them to 42nd street to score more so it could last for the rest of the night. They returned at midnight with more crack. I kept on trying to study while they continued to smoke and play cards. Milt and the Hilljack spent twenty minutes looking for rocks on the scummy floor prior to deciding to go for another run. They went back out to score again at four o’clock. This was repeated every night as well at the stand.
I was relieved after the four days were over. I was going to another room and stand when I returned. I never wanted to take a final more in my life.
The End Game
“So Time, you’re out, you’re free, you’re rehabilitated. What’s next? What’s happenin’? What you gonna do? You got the money you owe us?”
I usually returned from the city on the night of the twenty third. The next day I travel to the farm to get paid. I was able to make enough to get presents on Christmas Eve, pay for my next semester of college, and have some spending money. It was well worth it in the end.
So after an adventure like this you are a mess, tired, usually sick, and wanting a clean cockroach-free bed. Most importantly you need sensory isolation. I arrived home to my parents’ house and couldn’t believe the utter silence and serenity. I hugged and kiss my mom and sisters, hugged my dad, and greeted my family warmly. Mom was in the kitchen getting ready for dinner on Christmas Eve, dad was watching football, my sisters were asking me about my adventures. I was numb but content because I was home. Home where it was noise free, warm, roach free, crack free, Milt free, and chaos free.
Merry Christmas Everyone and thanks for reading.
The City Then and Now
The city was a different place than it is today. This is obvious from my story. There was a lot of negative aspects to the job, but there was much to enjoy as well. So much of what made the place enjoyable and tolerable were the people we met and places we frequented when we had time for a break. These were usually food establishments, stores nearby with stuff I could never find at home, and the excitement and flavor of the city itself. I feel this has been diminished over the years. The same things that make the city exciting to nineteen year old time are the same things that were getting routed out by gentrification and growth. They city is thriving, but along the way that flavor is lost. Most of the great places we ate at are now banks or chain restaurants. Several of the grocery’s we sold in from of are closed including the 110th street store. Below were some of my favorite places, some are no more.
Fowad: Not a restaurant but a strange clothing store with crazy outfits. The window displays were fun to look at.
Happy Burger: I hit this place up for a burger and calendar for many years after I stopped doing tree sales.
Columbia Hot Bagels: The best Bagel I ever had. Chewy and soft at the same time. More Cream cheese than I thought possible.
Mikes Papaya: A great place for a cheap meal. The papaya drinks were good and refreshing. This place has gone away as have many of the papaya hot dog places.
Hotel Windermere: Hotel Hell was renovated and now has apartments for six to fifteen grand a month. WTF? How did they get all of the glass out of the lobby roof?
Dive Bar: Still the same as I remembered
Koronet Pizza: Giant slices of pizza that kept me full while saving money.