BY KATHRYN ADISMAN | In 2010, when I announced on Facebook that I planned to pen a diatribe against those nice Christmas tree folks, I got 0 likes. One comment from my friend Pat Smith: “You’ll be Crazy Scrooge Lady.”
Undaunted, I stopped in Caravansary on Greenwich Avenue, relishing the irony of expressing my heresies in a Christmas specialty shop. Shop owner Bill Johnstone did not mince words: “DON’T DO IT! These people are so beloved they’re practically the mascots of Jane Street.”
The Romp family was a sacred neighborhood institution.
“Romp!” Pat cried. “The name alone is stuffed with cute. Go after them. Speak out as the lonely voice of beleaguered ill will in this time of strictly enforced good cheer. Don’t play devil’s advocate, be Satan herself!”
Here goes “Diary of a Mad West Villager”… .
Every Thanksgiving, they drop — from the heavens — and land on my street, where for a month they plant themselves, a whiff of Vermont, spreading holiday cheer and selling Christmas trees.
I dread the signs of their advent: The wooden frame supporting evergreens huddled like homeless men… . The white camper parked on the corner… . HELP! It’s the Xmas on Jane Clan (Billy and Patti Romp and their three children). The Tree People! They’re back! I can’t wait for Christmas Eve, when they depart!
They pee at the Jane Street Tavern. They use the juice from Bonsignour to power their trailer. They occupy the block, block the mailbox and entry to the garden. Decked out in quaint New England garb — overalls, plaid, old-fashioned fedora (which he told me he bought on 34th Street), white goatee. The kids are parodies of the Pa.
I wince as “Henry, the oldest child,” in stiff, unwashed dreads, paint-splattered overalls, nose rings, is introduced by one local to New Yorkers turned yokels. I cringe and cross the street to avoid the sidewalk gauntlet between leaning, bound trees and locked garden fence, to the tune of canned carols.
“Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh… .”
BAH HUMBUG! What would Lewis Black say? The curmudgeon comic rails against every tradition America reveres. Like Lewis Black, I have a built-in s— detector, visceral radar for phoniness. Posing as authentic tree farmers, the Romps buy their trees. The sidewalk “coniferous tree exception” enables them to sell without a permit. One stand spread to six!
The saccharine “true story” — the book “Christmas on Jane Street” — which has been written up in People (I’m surprised it hasn’t been made into a movie, starring the young Taylor Swift), about Billy Romp’s objection to his daughter, Ellie, going to “The Nutcracker” — reveals a New Englander’s deep-seated mistrust of New York City.
The book’s 10th anniversary edition makes no mention of the Romps’ divorce. Patti Romp set up her own stand in Brooklyn Heights until her death in 2015.
“As long as we’re alive, there will be the Romp family on this corner every Christmas,” Billy Romp has declared.
Why does my heart not soar at the prospect? What’s wrong with me? Their arrival inflicts a painful sense of isolation on those of us (I hope you’re out there) who aren’t part of “The Holidays.” I’m an outsider in my own neighborhood. I’m invisible.
So, every year I hide. The hiding begins early. I’m alone on Thanksgiving. The high point: “Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows.” Somebody has to rail against the “passive oppression” of The Holidays (Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s), bundled like a hex out of Hogwarts.
I try to fathom, how much are these country folk pocketing during their sojourn among us mere mortals, city dwellers? Seized by curiosity, I flip over the tag on a tree, hoping to find a price. I imagine I’m wearing my invisibility cloak borrowed from Harry, but I am seen.
In the fraction of a second, the helper kids are upon me: “Are you looking for a tree?” Schooled in the neighborhood, they realize their mistake and romp off.
I identify with the trees themselves, uprooted from their home in the forest, abducted to the city; like asylum seekers, they await extradition to somebody’s apartment, dressed in some weird charade of life in death, only to be thrown out, come January, tossed to the curb, naked carcasses, tinsel clinging to the branches, destined for mulch.
Barbaric custom when did it start? According to Jessie McNab, local tree enthusiast, the tree-decorating tradition gained popularity under Queen Victoria. The Rockefeller Center tree-lighting ceremony began in 1931, during the Great Depression.
The dead trees? “They’re still alive!” insists the Romp’s youngest child, Timmy. Tiny Tim? Among life’s cruel jokes: I have a friend whose last name means Christmas Tree. O Tannebaum!
Once upon a time, I celebrated Christmas… . Fade to retro NYC sidewalk with my stepfather, Harvey Levine, in search of a tree. In the 1960s, a 6-foot tree cost $8 versus hundreds from the Romps today. I loved decorating the Christmas tree. Close-up on hand of child placing the miniature manger on the circle of felt snow shimmering with sparkles at the base of our tree. The angel star with organdy wings was last and perched on top. Harvey plugged in the string of colored lights.
This year, 2010, when the lights of my neighborhood are going out with the loss of St. Vincent’s Hospital, I can’t help but think: We have the symbol for Christmas but where is the thing itself?
’Twas the night before Christmas and …
At the corner of Jane Street and Eighth Avenue, I lurk in hopes of catching the Tree People in the act of vanishing. Every year I wake up Christmas Day to find them gone — as suddenly as they appear. This is the year I shed the invisibility cloak and approach Billy Romp. Instead he approaches me.
Meeting at OK Corral — O.K., Jane Street. … A pair of cowboys facing off, we circle each other: Billy in his fedora; me in my vintage shades. He lunges toward me, hand extended.
“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” Was I single? Would I like to go out on a date?
OMG! The Romp family patriarch is hitting on me!
Billy heard about the hospital closing, but his Christmas-tree business wasn’t affected. This is not his neck of the woods. He leaves tonight.
Through the window of La Bonbonniere I see the leftover trees piled up, waiting for the garbage collector. The snow arrives first. As I make my rounds of local businesses, I am Santa dispensing the spirit of Christmas in my own way.
Today, in 2023, looking back through the prism of COVID, 13 years after St. Vincent’s Hospital closure — as the war in Ukraine drags on and the Israel-Hamas war inflames anti-Semitism here at home — in this dark time, let’s resolve our differences in peace and celebrate the rebirth of the sun. HAPPY HOLIDAYS!