People | Fifteen Minutes

15 Minutes with Gabriel

Kayaking, Bill Murray, and Christmas trees in New York.

December has been unseasonably warm in New York City this year, and the unusual weather has affected Christmas tree sales. “Two weekends before Christmas is traditionally the busiest time, but it wasn’t, across all our sites,” says Gabriel, from his temporary wooden shack on the sidewalk of my Long Island City neighborhood. I’ve gone to pick up a small tree for the holidays, and business is even slower at the stand due to a light drizzle that has begun to fall. Since Gabriel isn’t busy with any other customers, he is happy to hang out for a while during his twelve to fourteen  hour shift. I get the impression immediately that he is an easygoing guy who enjoys a good conversation.

Gabriel is a slight and stylish man wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, with plastic eyeglass frames and a beard that would serve him well in the trendier neighborhoods of Brooklyn. He has traveled from North Carolina to New York for the season, his first as a Christmas tree salesman, bringing with him trees that are also from North Carolina. Fraser firs flourish in higher elevations, such as the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina, where some of the biggest tree farms in the country provide Christmas trees to homes all along the East Coast.

Gabriel is originally from Pennsylvania. “When you’re in college and you meet a friend and he says, ‘Hey, you should work for this whitewater rafting company,’ that turns into dropping out of college to live in a van and travel around and kayak. So then I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, because that’s like Mecca for whitewater in the East. I went there and I’ve been there eleven years.”

As we continue to chat, I discover once again how small a place New York can be. I tell Gabriel a story about a regular at my local coffee shop who has been renting out vans and taxis in the neighborhood as Airbnb rooms.

“Oh, that’s Jonathan,” Gabriel replies. “He’s my boss. It’s his vans we’re living in this month.”

Jonathan’s father owns a whitewater rafting company in Pennsylvania, which explains why Gabriel offers whitewater rafting coupons to his Christmas tree patrons. My husband and I had purchased a tree from the same stand last year—different seller—and had wondered what whitewater rafting had to do with Christmas. A pleasant surprise and a nice gift, in any case.

Several of Jonathan’s employees are rafting instructors who also teach snowboarding. Selling Christmas trees in December fills the gap between the rafting and skiing seasons perfectly. Gabriel no longer works in whitewater rafting himself —he has a job with a small footwear company now—though he does still kayak for fun. On Christmas Day, he and his colleagues at other tree stand locations are scheming to take a kayak tour around the island of Manhattan. They will have closed shop by then (usually on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day), and any leftover Fraser firs will be sold in Russian neighborhoods, where people celebrate the Orthodox Christmas holiday, about two weeks after December 25.

Gabriel does field events for the footwear company. “I’m a road warrior, like at festivals I set up and promote our stuff.” Like whitewater rafting, it’s seasonal work, which left him open to living in a van on the streets of New York for a month—that and the fact that he’s recently divorced and looking for a new place to live.

“I think she probably wouldn’t want me gone for a month unless she wanted me gone forever,” he reasons.

Gabriel had a lot of experience working in arts and crafts in his marriage—“My wife is real crafty and I’d help her out, she’d show me things on Pinterest, and then I’d make her Pinterest dreams come true”—which has segued nicely into a practice of making deer sculptures from discarded Fraser fir tree stumps and branches during his Christmas-tree-selling downtime.

“I’ve always been artistic, liked messing around and making stuff. I used to buy mis-mixed house paint at Home Depot and use found wood, and I’d make paintings on those.” Painting was just something he felt like doing, but it wasn’t a career. Most of his paintings were given away or destroyed.

Gabriel will have a chance to dip his foot into the arts and crafts world again in February, albeit in a removed capacity. “A fancy hotel in Asheville has a big arts and crafts furniture show with antiques every year,” he tells me, “and people come from all over the country. I got on the crew of the people to move it in and move it out. Two days for pretty sweet pay.” He’s been doing it for four years and doesn’t want to turn it down, because missing a year makes you liable to lose your spot the following year. He will need to find a place to stay for the month, though.

I ask Gabriel where he takes showers while he’s living in a van. He tells me that the nearby rock-climbing gym has been kind about giving free passes and showers to the tree sellers, since they provided the gym with a tree. Alternatively, “you gotta meet girls and get invited to their house.” The latter is an option that has worked well for Gabriel—he has a charming and non-threatening presence, which I imagine also works well for him when selling trees.

We chat a bit about upcoming holiday plans, and I tell Gabriel that I’ll be going to Nashville soon to see my sister and her kids. He lives only about four or five hours from Nashville, though he rarely visits the city—he says he’d like to go and check out some music, maybe at the Grand Ole Opry. It’s hard to tell when Gabriel’s being completely serious, but I think he means it when he says he’d like to visit the Opry.

“Nashville is like New York,” he says. “A lot of people are there trying to live their dream.”

Gabriel’s dream is to meet Bill Murray. I press him on this. He explains that he’d like to be in a movie with Bill Murray. Well, no, actually, he’d like to be in a Wes Anderson movie, and he figures Bill Murray could hook up a connection. It’s not so important that Bill actually be in the movie himself.

The drizzle that accompanied our entire conversation starts coming down in sheets, and Gabriel, like a true southern gentleman, offers me a beer and the chair in his stand so I can wait out the storm and avoid dragging my tree home in the rain. He busies himself, attending to leaks and faults in the roof structure of his stand, saying he would have angled the roof in the opposite direction if he’d designed the thing. Maybe he’ll get the chance next year—he plans on coming back to try the tree-selling business a second time.

“I’m starting to recognize a lot of people in the neighborhood, now that I’ve been here for a couple weeks. I’ve made a couple friends.”

Eventually we decide that the rain just isn’t letting up, and since Gabriel has to leave soon to help a customer with lights and then make a delivery, his stand partner (recently woken from a nap in the van) offers to give me a lift home in their flatbed truck with my tree. Gabriel asks me to come back and visit, and I promise to return and say hi before the tree selling season ends, and he’s moved on to another town.