For women and gay male Park Slopers, the day after Thanksgiving marks not the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, but the arrival from points north of the neighborhood’s handsome French-Canadian Christmas-tree salesmen
For the last six years, Nicolas and Louis have driven down from Montreal to set up their ephemeral tree sale outside the CVS on Ninth Street and spread their jostling wares across our otherwise dreary sidewalk. They come with no family associations, no sentimental hauntings from Christmases past. Rather, the two simply come bearing their slamming French-speaking selves and a sea of naked evergreens. Angels, rejoice!
Like the holidays themselves, the Canadians’ arrival always takes me by surprise. I was lucky this year and spotted them early. After attending a homeless-and-strays Thanksgiving gathering the night before, I had woken with a Beaujolais hangover and a full-blown case of holiday ennui. Venturing out, I saw that all municipal and retail Christmas decorations had gone up on Seventh Avenue overnight. Jesus Christ, I thought, without a moment to recover from Thanksgiving, here we go galloping straight towards the season’s gaudy heart. I trudged towards Fifth Avenue and then—miracle of miracles—I caught sight and scent of a freshly slaughtered keep of pines.
Nicolas and Louis, Canadians to the core, had rigged a hockey goal out of a bucket and were shooting perfect shots, filling the bucket up with random chips of bark. Neither had changed a jot since last year: Louis, tall and dark, a Colin Farrell type; and Nicolas (sigh) a dreamy combination of a young Harrison Ford and a manlier Jude Law.
“Bonjour!” I waved and quickly ran away.
“Bonjour!” they called after me.
Word quickly spread the two were back. I received an e-mail from my friend Todd that read: “My wife just told me the Canadians are back. Look out.”
My upstairs neighbor Tim bought a tree from them days later, and it was all he could do to hide his elation at having purchased his first-ever adult Christmas tree from such charming customer-service representatives.
“It’s insane. Why aren’t they Armani models? Those boys are in the wrong business,” he said.
“Let’s not give them any ideas. I want this tradition to last,” I said.
Nicolas and Louis have an agreement with CVS, and so the two have happily returned to the same spot year after year, like migrating ducks. They chose to set up in one of the less gentrified stretches of this otherwise tony neighborhood, sort of on the slippery slope downwards towards Fifth Avenue and, ultimately, the poisoned Gowanus Canal. But here the sidewalks are ample, and the stand acts as a cattle chute for shoppers frequenting C-town, one of the neighborhood’s larger supermarkets. I’d wager that legions of Park Slope moms get a secret shot of Christmas mirth as they push Junior in his S.U.V.-sized stroller towards C-town’s automatic doors. I know I do—nothing like the gentle visages of these Christmas angels to make picking up a quart of milk a minor cause for celebration.
Last Sunday was a busy tree-buying day, and Nicolas and Louis were in hot demand. Kids spun around, barely able to contain themselves. One little boy broke out into a very adult-looking rendition of air guitar when his family’s tree was finally roped to the roof of their car. All afternoon, the two woodsmen pulled out tree after tree, holding them at arm’s length, spinning them around like girls in Prada cocktail dresses. Satie played on the van’s radio. Some buyers opted to have their trees wrapped up in the scary Christmas-tree netting/bondage machine.
This year, I screwed up my courage to speak to the two directly instead of just stealing appreciative glances and trying to drum up questions about proper Christmas-tree care. I learned the answers to many of the questions we all had: Do you sleep in the van? How do you avoid dying of asphyxiation? How do you eat? Are you really open 24 hours? Do you grow these trees from seedlings yourselves in the great wild woods of Canada?
“We are open 24 hours, seven days a week,” verified Nicolas. “At night, someone has to watch the trees.” For showers, there is the nearby YMCA. Asphyxiation is avoided with a cracked window. The trees are grown in Nova Scotia by strangers, not in Quebec by Louis and Nicolas. For cuisine, there’s take-out and two conveniently located French or French-sounding establishments to stave off homesickness, Delices de Paris bakery and the neighborhood bar, Barbès.
As we chatted, a man walked by, punched his fist into the air and shouted:
“Vive la différence!”
“Oh, yes—and people come by to practice their French,” Nicolas smiled, giving the man a friendly nod.
It must be said that the Canadians’ tree stand is most lovely at night, when the bright lights strung overhead are turned on and the surrounding sidewalk is dark, blocking out the street’s gloomy pet shop, dental clinics and podiatrists’ offices. Over 300 Nova Scotian pines—albeit pines that are slowly dying and oozing gum from their stumps—create an enchanted forest of sorts right there on the pavement. While it may not be as picturesque as driving a horse-drawn sleigh through a living forest, Nicolas and Louis are there to add a dash of beauty to the tree-buying experience. As happens every year, my threats not to celebrate the holiday in any way, shape or form dissolve once I enter their magical woodland.
Last night, Louis helped me pick out one of the scragglier Charlie Brown Christmas–type trees available, one that might never have found a home otherwise. It was not entirely clear to me whether what I purchased was an actual tree or maybe the sawed-off top of one, but it smelled good and would hold a few bulbs. Nicolas helped secure the Christmas-tree stand with its impossibly complex system of screws and vices, a tool that comes with bad memories of my father cursing Christmas and Christmas-tree-stand makers and God knows who else as he succumbed to driving nails into the walls and stringing wires at random angles like a spider spinning a web on LSD. I lofted my little tree over my head and carried it home and up the stairs to my apartment. Once I had it in place, I noticed that the tree listed dementedly to one side and had a gaping wound between its lower branches. It looked a little bit like the piney offspring of two alcoholic parents. But with some white lights and a few ornaments, it became very beautiful very quickly.
Like St. Nick himself, our two Christmas-tree salesmen quietly steal away on Dec. 25 and drive back to their own families to celebrate the holiday. They’ll be flush from their month’s long, hard work jamming the Christmas spirit into our urban hearts. I could never tell them what part they play in keeping the holidays from being a blinding snowstorm of pain, or how they help prevent my fear of the holiday from separating me from its real pleasures. In fact, these last few evenings I’ve found myself humming, “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, how lovely are your branches … ” to myself and my little deformed tree. Thank you, Nicolas and Louis, for bringing Christmas to Park Slope in a sane and sexy package. See you next year.