Daniel Lemay

Photo: Brad Paris

Why is every tree seller in New York French-Canadian?
I believe they hire us because we have an accent, and this gives an exotic taste to the Christmas tree. Since we come from a colder environment, we can sustain the weather easier. There are two major companies and maybe a handful of independents, including ours. I started when I was 25 and I have been on this corner for eight years. Ten percent of each purchase goes back to St. Mark’s Church.

I met you the day you set up shop—a heated wooden hut where you and your colleague take turns bunking, in the background of this photo—on December 1.
We couldn’t finish building the little shack in time for the first night, so we left everything and went to sleep in the rectory of the church. When we came back in the morning there was a homeless in here. We’re here now, selling, day and night. Our latest so far was at 2am–a couple in their 40s on their way home from a drink. And my earliest at 6am was a guy walking his dog who bought a Charlie Brown tree because he thought they were smelling good.

You’re in a rowdy neighborhood. Any tomfoolery?
We always have the traditional drunk coming out of the bar and throwing himself in the trees.

What should I know before buying a tree?
The balsam fir is the one that most people will purchase, with the strong pine smell; it’s also cheaper than a Fraser fir, which is a higher-quality tree, fuller, stronger, heavier, with a silvery color on the back of the needle, which gives it a blue-ish look. We have some from North Carolina and a few from Quebec. It’s a tree that sheds much less than a balsam–actually the needle will stay on the tree even when it’s totally dry. So it’s almost maintenance-free.

How do I know I’m buying a good tree?
Take a branch and twirl it around your finger a few times; if it doesn’t break and if the needles don’t start coming out that means there’s sap in the tree, which is like the tree’s blood. Make sure the seller gives the tree a fresh cut too–because there’s an accumulation of sap at the bottom of the tree and when it dries it creates a seal. We remove it by doing a fresh cut. A Fraser will look good longer–but because we’re a small-scale operation, we harvest the balsams ourselves and wait until late to cut them down, basically gaining two weeks of freshness right from the start.

How are your prices?
It’s a better deal to come downtown. I sell a seven-foot Fraser for $100, and you should expect to pay like $150 in midtown. It’s outrageous.

What’s the best way to keep a tree fresh?
Put it away from the radiator—not because it’s a fire hazard. When the tree is totally dry it will not be the radiator that will cause the fire, but an electrical problem with the lights or a cheap device that you have put in the tree. To preserve the tree, put water in the bucket. This is the most common mistake: People think it’s a plant, so they think it’s ok to water it every so many days. You must not forget to pour water into the bucket as it gets empty, because the tree is like a sponge that will absorb water in a slowing-down fashion, and if the bucket runs empty, the sap will dry again and it will form another seal and when you pour water again it will not go through as easy as it should, so the tree won’t last.

What do you do in the off-season?
I do programming. This is a hobby—it takes me away from the computer. I need this—not financially—because I make more money doing computer. It’s about being in New York for a month, to be on the corner where everything happens before your eyes.

Daniel Lemay