December is Slipping Away and It's Your Last Chance to Visit Our Tree Man!
By Caitlin Hawke
'Twas the night before Christmas (see footnote video below) and neighbor Judith Norrell's potato and root vegetable latkes have cooled and the menorahs have been emptied of oil and readied for cold storage. The dulcet caroling voices have wafted away and the days will now grow longer. And maybe even colder.
But in this darkest season, on this very eve, there is still, for some, the matter of the Christmas tree.
As many Bloomingdalers know, tree vendor François has been coming to the northeast corner of Broadway and West 102nd for the past decade, nailing up his two-by-fours, battening them down with tarpaulins, and tarting his temporary Chez Lui up with garlands of lights. The fellow couldn't be more congenial or more wry if he tried. If you are thinking, what I am thinking, yes! He has a little St. Nick in him. A lot, really.
How do I know this? Some I know from the resonant and intimate documentary that neighbors Jon Reiner and Brad Rothschild (yes, they are Jewish) made. Part exploration of NYC subculture-hidden-in-plain-sight, part love letter to Bloomingdale, this film delves as deeply into François's existence as he will allow. He "moved" here for the same reasons you and I did. But he's a private man who just wants to do business on our quiet stretch of sidewalk and get back to his family in the Great White North. And yet he welcomed the filmmakers into his life and participated in what will become an annual must-see for neighbors. It is, of course, not all about the trees. In fact, the trees are window dressing.
It's more about the layers of our society. About man's ability to adapt. The struggle to survive. About basic human connections in terrain many wrongly see as inhospitable. About the unnoticed fabric all around us that we ought to appreciate more -- and work to preserve -- before we start sobbing at its "sudden" fragility. I am thinking of Carmine and Sal -- Sal himself forever missed.
In case you missed "Tree Man" when the Block Association joined forces with BAiP and the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group to cosponsor a screening with Hostelling International thanks to Paul Lindberg, you still have two chances to see it this season on successive Sundays at Symphony Space.
But to return to the trees, I am chagrinned to have missed out on this special neighbor who has left a mark on people that is deep enough for them to haul back to the catchment from deep inside Queens to buy the perfect pine at his stand. Since moving to NYC, I have not been a tree sort. My first quirky living situation was an apartment share with an unknown roommate. I moved in around Thanksgiving one year, just around the time she was putting up her tree. I thought: "Charming! This single Upper West Side woman knows how to lean into the holiday and make it hers." But then the tree didn't come down on Twelfth Night. The cat chewed regularly on its needles, and I won't saddle you with a mental image of the result. That tree was still up for Valentine's. And as Easter approached early that year, I began to fret that the tree would be there until the Summer solstice. I moved out. But the scars endure.
Until François. He makes me want to buy a big, fat, juicy Douglas and stick it right in the middle of my living room. And if you are smart and lucky enough to live nearby, you'll get your tree at François's stand since this man knows his firs. He is a decent, hard-working neighbor. And he is Bloomingdale's adopted son.
Cap on head, suit that's red
Special night, beard that's white
Must be François, must be François!
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