Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tree, Glorious Tree!

I just bought my first Christmas tree, and I'm ridiculously excited about it. Just thinking about it makes me feel like Skittles are shooting out of my fingertips. Most people over 30 probably don't have this reaction. They've probably purchased Christmas trees before. Probably a number of trees. And they probably put them in the living rooms of the houses they own. As for me, I am just excited to have my very own tree in the living room/dining room/common area of the apartment I rent with three other people.

Growing up, we always had a tall, full, gorgeous tree in the front window of our Victorian house. The whole family would load into one of our two matching Taurus station wagons, and we would head out to several garden shops, the Boy Scouts' annual Christmas tree sale at our church, and, of course, Chase-Pitkin, which was Wegmans' version of Home Depot that has now gone out of business. We would go to all of these places, you see, because we had to find the biggest, best Christmas tree at the most affordable price. I come from a long line of bargain shoppers (one of my father’s aliases is Findasale, for Pete's sake), and we cannot make a decision until examining every single available option. At each location, we would look the trees in our price range, pull them out to see their shape, shake them a bit to see if the needles fell off, then move on. If you're a kid, that process can really drag on. Ultimately, we would choose a tree that was not necessarily the biggest, best, or most affordable. We picked the tree that was reasonably full and affordable at the time we all started getting irritable and hungry. 

I had never purchased a tree for my apartment because it seemed like a waste of money. Why bother? I would just go upstate and admire my parents' tree later on, especially in the mornings. Ever since I was young, my father has turned on the tree lights before I wake up so they will greet me when I walk downstairs. It used to make waking up at 6am for high school a tad more tolerable. And now it's just fun. But since I can't go home to admire their tree this year, the time has come for me to turn on my own tree lights.

Manhattan obviously doesn't have tree farms, like the one my friend's family visits to chop down
their own tree every year. I've never seen Boy Scouts here, and there aren't that many garden shops big enough to hold trees. Instead, trees are sold in alcoves, street corners, and anywhere there’s a free square foot of space. I particularly love the tree stand on 56th Street and 9th Avenue because trees line both sides of the sidewalk. When I walk through, I feel as though I've entered a Christmas wonderland. Until I come to the end of that 40 feet of piney goodness and find myself on the very spot that I was once pooped on by a pigeon. In any event, I decided to make that stand the first (and hopefully only) stop on my tree trek. I didn't need a giant tree to find Christmas joy—I just wanted a little (meaning, cheap) one. So I asked the grimy middle-aged hippie with multiple piercings who was running the tree stand the cost of the small, 20" tabletop trees.

 He told me that they cost THIRTY DOLLARS EACH.
Now, I've always heard that Manhattan prices are outrageous for everything except manicures and hookers, but that blew me away. The Boy Scouts would have given me a whole seven-foot tree for that price, so there was no way I could justify spending $30 on five twigs barely holding on to a skinny trunk.

I came up with a brilliant plan. Plan B. I figured that the further from Times Square I went, the cheaper the trees would be. The less the demand, the lower the price, right? So I got up early and dragged my roommate-slash-tree carrier over to the Chelsea Garden Center on 11th Avenue. The street is pretty desolate, so I was pretty confident about getting a good deal. Well, apparently the Chelsea Garden Center only caters to the rich and famous because we couldn't find a tree under $79. What?! There goes my Plan B. I needed a Plan C.

Many NYC Christmas trees are sold at delis. Delicatessens. That's right—you can buy your coffee, bagel, newspaper, and Christmas tree all in the same place. The trees aren't in the store, of course. They are on the street corner, next to the $8/dozen roses. We went to the 52nd Street deli, where a tiny, squat foreign man encouraged me to forget the tabletop trees and move on to the almost-regular size ones.

"I like this one," I told him. "How much is it?"

"Fi-bee," he said.

"Fifteen?" I said.

"Fi-bee," he said.

"Okay, so fifteen?" I was a bit distracted because I was mentally decorating the tree as I spoke.

"NO," He said. "Fi-bee. FI. OH." And he held up five fingers on one hand and made a fist with the other.

Ohhhh...$50. Argh! My stomach dropped. This tree excursion was getting pricier than I thought. But I had cash. And a willing tree carrier, who was probably still drunk and definitely still wearing the clothes from the day before. So I needed to make something happen. Fast. "Do you have anything for around $25?" I asked.

Luckily, my little Hispanic Christmas elf did! He pointed to a five-footer that was already bound for travel. It ended up being $30. The stand, of course, was an additional $10. But he agreed to cut the trunk and put it in the stand for me. I was so thrilled that he was solving my tree crisis with a minimum of cost and effort on my part that I yelled, "SOLD!" and handed him my cash, much to the later chagrin of my parents, who, when I told them the story, were visibly appalled that I would make a purchase without surveying the merchandise first. (I mean, I only told them about it via phone, but I could totally tell they were visibly appalled.) In all honesty, I was on a schedule. I was wearing my pajamas, and I only had 30 minutes before I had to leave for work and/or my half-drunk roommate got bored and went to Starbucks for a breakfast sandwich. I didn’t have many options at that point.
(There's my elf in blue!!)

So we walked the six blocks to my apartment, my roommate carrying the tree and pretending to almost poke pedestrians in the fanny with it (violating a number of my rules of sidewalk etiquette). Once he carried the tree up those 97 stairs to the apartment and we cut the bindings off, we could see that it was a shockingly gorgeous tannenbaum. My Hispanic Christmas elf didn't lead me astray! We had a tree skirt and energy-saving tree lights (not nearly as satisfying as the energy-wasting kind) in the apartment—the former had adorned our two-foot tall fiber optic tree the previous year. Another roommate added candy canes, and I purchased 40 feet of metallic red garland and box of ornaments at the sketchy dollar store on 46th and 5th. (There is a dearth of dollar store chains in Manhattan. There are only sad, sad random 99-cent stores with peeling linoleum and loose ceiling tiles.) I didn't have a star and didn't feel like purchasing one, so I made a star out of tin foil and cardboard from a leftover Domino's pizza box. 

I can't say that this kind of thrown together mish-mosh of a tree is the tree I'd always dreamed of, but I can't help but feel an earth-shattering, all-consuming love for it. Like I gave birth to it or something.  That tree is there because of me. And my distracted tree carrier. And my Hispanic Christmas elf. It’s truly a thing of energy-saving, thrown-together, collaborative, Stone Soup beauty. Sometimes I walk in the common room just to stare at it. I may not have a house or a driveway or even a real kitchen table…but doggone it, I have a tree!

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