Five hours south of Moffatt’s Christmas Tree Farm, Seth Johnson steers his flatbed truck into the Stamford, Connecticut, rest area. Earlier this morning, while Seth was loading on these Frasers and balsams in Northern Vermont, the loudest sound was a jake brake muttering on a milk truck coming off nearby Denton Hill. Now, as he […]
By Julia Shipley
Dec 18 2014
Unloading trees in Brooklyn.Photo Credit : Julia Shipley
Five hours south of Moffatt’s Christmas Tree Farm, Seth Johnson steers his flatbed truck into the Stamford, Connecticut, rest area. Earlier this morning, while Seth was loading on these Frasers and balsams in Northern Vermont, the loudest sound was a jake brake muttering on a milk truck coming off nearby Denton Hill. Now, as he parks and gets out to check the straps, he hears the high continuous whine of the cars on I-95. He’s close, just one hour from his destination.
As the evening traffic thins out, Seth makes a call to the folks who bought this load. Are they ready? Seth double-checks his directions. He tugs off his wool cap and dons his Santa hat. Ready, he turns the key, and steers back on the Interstate. He and 500 trees begin the final leg of the trip — right into the city.
The nice thing about driving Christmas trees through Brooklyn is — when people see them, they grin. Trucks pass through the Flat Iron district all day, all night. No big deal. But when the first shipments of Christmas trees pull in? They wave, give a thumbs up, you feel like a celebrity.
Seth eases his truck to a stop beside the 16th Street Church and a fenced in T-ball field. To his relief, there are five people on hand to unload. Sometimes he’s not so lucky. Under the streetlight, Seth climbs on top of the trees and begins tugging them free. Traffic, moderated by the streetlights, washes by in pulses. An airplane landing at La Guardia screams over them. Seth drops one tree after another off the truck to a brigade of reaching arms, reversing the process begun in the morning light, 356 miles north.
With only needles left in his truck bed and pay in his pocket, Seth’s long day is done. He hops back in the truck, and heads over to New Jersey to spend the night before beginning the trip back to Vermont at dawn.
But for another Vermonter, 34-year-old Gabriel Tempesta, who sells Christmas Trees in Brooklyn, the long days, a long way from home, are just beginning. From the day after Thanksgiving to the day before Christmas, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., you can find Gabe on this lot propping the handsomest firs against the 10-foot high chain link fence. When it rains, Gabe hunkers under a small canopy sheltering his table of maple syrup.
This is Gabe’s fourth year selling trees on 16th Street and the people who live here greet him, “Oh, hey! You’re back.”
Gabe’s urban neighbors include Don, a landlord, and his family. He and Gabe work out a trade: maple syrup and a tree in exchange for electricity on the lot. Gabe’s other neighbor is Peggy. Each year Gabe sets her tree up in the living room and in return she brings him cups of spiked coffee, which Gabe politely sips then sets aside. Another local (whose brother runs a tree lot in Boston) drops off a cappuccino each day on his way to work, asking, Gabe “Everything okay? You doin’ good?”
Yet another resident who works for Jamison recently gifted Gabe with a whole bottle of the company whiskey on her way home.
“It feels like they’re looking out for me,” Gabe said of the neighborhood.
But the job comes with its challenges, too. Last weekend Gabe sold 150 trees, (that’s 6.25 trees per hour, if everyone showed up at nice ten minute intervals.) Sometimes when it’s really busy, he wishes he had two more arms. And every year there’s an elderly lady who shuffles over to pick out a tree and ask, “How much is this?” And every year Gabe dutifully fetches the measuring pole and brings it up to the tree. The going rate for a Christmas tree is $10 per foot. Every year when he tells her its cost she says, “Oh that’s too much, I’m going to get one at Home Depot.”
It’s their weird holiday ritual but sometimes other folks balk at the cost too and try to bargain Gabe down. If Gabe has time, he’ll gladly explain what’s involved, how this fir was planted in a meadow miles from here and years ago, and then tended all the way from seedling to tree over the course of a decade, and how, once cut, the tree has swung from person to person, field to truck, truck to Brooklyn. But if he’s busy, well then, it is what it is.
On weekday mornings when things are slower, Gabe sweeps needles off the sidewalk. He hears the subway cars squeal as they slow into the underground station, followed by the subway’s pre-recorded muffled voice squawking. Another airplane thrusts out of La Guardia and roars overhead.
Even when Gabe’s not employed as the guardian-salesman of a small forest on a city street, his life still revolves around trees. In the temperate months he works for a plant nursery and a landscaping business in Craftsbury and Wolcott, Vermont, and he’s an artist represented by the West Branch Gallery in Stowe. Selling these Christmas trees, seven days a week, helps him afford time off in the winter to paint large canvases with images of fields and ponds and, you guessed it, trees.
With little more than a week till Christmas, Gabe’s inventory is diminished to an assortment of both the scrawny and the very tall. Nevertheless, Gabe heads into the ball field to fetch a few more to bring forth and showcase on the street. He cuts their string and fluffs them up. He snips the wayward branches. Then he shucks his gloves, and with bare hands tweezes out the straggly grasses that were caught up in the boughs back when the trees were first cut and baled, in those hayfields with rolling hills, probably north of where you’re reading this.
Learn more about Gabe’s art: gabrieltempesta.com/main.html
Find two Northeast Kingdom, Vermont to Brooklyn Christmas Tree growers Windswept Farm: adamparketrees.com/ and Moffatt’s Christmas Tree Farm: vtxmastrees.com/
Part I:Moffatt’s Christmas Tree Farm | This May Be Your Tree
Part II: Christmas Tree Transport | This May Be Your Tree