Tom and Michele Gilmartin have driven back and forth between Alaska and New York City dozens of times to sell Christmas trees on a Manhattan sidewalk.
On Ninth Avenue at 22nd Street in Chelsea, they park their red-and-green camper — with Alaska license plates and topped with a giant inflatable Santa Claus — for their seasonal stay. The Gilmartins don't bring the trees themselves: Every night around midnight, the person on shift hauls the delivery of fresh trees to the sidewalk in front of a Rite Aid and gets them ready to sell.
For 14 years, the Nikiski couple would drive down the Alaska Highway each November, then through the rest of Canada or the U.S. on different routes, and head back north in January.
This is their 21st year traveling to New York for the family winter business, along with their teenage son, Rory. Now, though, they travel by plane.
So what gave them the idea in the first place?
"There was nothing to do in Alaska in December," said Tom Gilmartin, and he was looking for a winter job. He and his wife both work in the commercial fishing industry.
His sister had worked for years selling Christmas trees in Greenwich Village, and he heard about the job opportunity through her. Being from Alaska may have made them seem like pretty attractive candidates.
"They won't hire anybody to run a Christmas tree stand unless they're from a place with a cold climate," Tom said. "The average New Yorker won't do this. They won't last. They just go off and do other things. To do this, you have to have no connections in this city and no place to go."
The first time Tom and Michele made the drive, in 1996, "people were taking bets" on whether their beater truck would make it to the East Coast, Michele said.
"The fuel pump was out in the truck, but it technically did not break down," she said.
After the first year selling trees, Tom recalls, he thought they'd never do the job again.
"It's harder than commercial fishing," he said. "You're camped out on the streets of New York. All you have to use is the store you're in front of, use their bathroom. Eating takeout all the time. You miss Thanksgiving, you miss Christmas at home. The first year, said we'd never come back."
Reluctantly, they returned for a second season. By the third year, they just got used to it. Now, Tom said, they're a local fixture.
"What it's like here is like Seinfeld — you know everybody," he said. The community looks forward to the trees for some relief from the trappings of city life.
"The city of New York smells like garbage and dog pee," Tom said. "The month that we're here, the place smells good. … They come from blocks around to walk through our little forest."
About a decade ago, the Gilmartins bought a house in New Jersey. Now they keep their camper there, and pick it up after flying from Alaska to Philadelphia each winter.
A 7-foot Fraser fir or Balsam fir from their stand will run you $140, cash only. If you're looking for something more extravagant, an 11-foot Fraser costs $300. Michele does much of the heavy lifting ("It's an Alaskan girl thing," she said), getting the trees to the sidewalk and arranging them by size and width.
"Skinny trees are particularly attractive in this neighborhood because nobody has any room," she said.
Her night owl tendencies and the fact that, being from Alaska, she's not used to hordes of people, makes the night shift a good fit for her, she said. But initial big city culture shock didn't stop her from developing a fondness for their seasonal community.
"I think New Yorkers get a bit of a weird rap. They are some of the friendliest people anywhere in the country," she said. "I look on my table right now, there are two cakes, they bring us coffee and hot chocolate. They're genuinely concerned about our well-being."
Over their decades of working in hip Chelsea, the family has watched the neighborhood go through dramatic transformations. Middle-class housing has disappeared, Michele said. There's a Tesla showroom blocks away, and a building boom all around where the Gilmartins sell trees.
In the days when the family drove to New York, they took a different route each time, Tom said. His favorite was one that took them across Southern Canada. Michele referred to driving the Alaska Highway in January as "horrifying" and is fine with that part of the tradition being over.
Tom wouldn't say how much money the family makes each year in Chelsea, but did say their pay is 50 percent of the bottom line, after expenses. They work as independent contractors for a business called Forever Evergreen.
"We do OK," he said. "We make enough to make it worthwhile."
Most Christmas tree suppliers in the area are supposed to charge the same price of about $20 per foot, Michele said. If a tree is on the less-impressive side or has a broken limb, they'll start haggling.
"We really don't try to be competitive. We have a pretty captive audience here," she said. "But when we're in an upscale neighborhood like we are — these people will buy a fruit basket for $100. It's like Kodiak: You expect it be expensive."
Tom refers to himself as a migrant worker, following money wherever it may be. He's fished off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, though he mostly fishes in Alaska.
"I spend a couple hundred days a year on the ocean," he said. "We come down here and do this together. What can be better than that?"