It was Christmastime in 1971.
I’d just returned to New York after having been on the road in the cast of The Impossible Years. After month-long stays in whistle-stops like Raleigh, Memphis, and Oklahoma City, I was thrilled to be back home in the City. I was staying at my boyfriend’s apartment—a brownstone walk-up on West 51st Street—in Hell’s Kitchen and working at The Penny Candy Store in Greenwich Village. The boyfriend, Randall Robbins, was on the road in the national tour of the Sondheim musical, Company—they’d just opened at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia.
While I hadn’t planned on buying a Christmas tree that year, I was feeling festive. There’s nothing quite as bright (store windows and Rockefeller Center), fragrant (roasted chestnuts and hot pretzels), or musical (choirs and carolers) as are the holidays in Manhattan.
On an almost-Saturday morning in late December, I closed The Penny Candy store. Just before midnight, it was extraordinarily cold, and the air had that crisp, clean scent that predicts snow. Bundled up in a black peacoat, I was headed toward the Christopher Street subway station when I walked past a vendor selling Christmas trees on the sidewalk. One of his trees called my name. It called me loudly, and I bought it.
There were no tree baler machines in those days.
The vendor hand-wrapped the six-foot fir—round and round and round—with brown twine and attached a small wooden carrying handle to a few of the strands. The handle was of little use. It broke less than a block away. I reached way down inside the tree, grabbed it by the trunk, and continued on toward the uptown IRT.
The authorities frowned on transporting trees on subway cars—there had been warnings that a person could be fined for such behavior. So, a scofflaw with an MTA token firmly in one fist and a tree not so firmly in the other, I waited about halfway down the station stairs until I heard a train approaching. Finally, hearing the sounds of metal wheels screeching on metal rails, I darted down the stairs, dropped my token in the turnstile, and scurred through the train doors just before they closed.
The train lurched forward.
And that’s when the twine snapped. The tree, in the subway car, proudly unfurled to its full and mighty width. A guy in a black motorcycle jacket and leather chaps looked up— briefly.
Exiting the 50th Street Station, with that unwieldy, broad conifer in tow, I headed toward Randy’s apartment. At that point, I was dragging it.
I didn’t have a tree stand, and I didn’t have any ornaments. The ornaments could wait, but the tree was going to need water.
I knew where Randy’s building’s super kept a large metal bucket. Construction on the Uris Building at 51st and Broadway was coming to an end and I’d seen a few piles of sand under tarps on the site.
I dragged the tree up the stoop, then two flights of stairs, and leaned it in a corner of the living room. I grabbed the bucket from the super’s maintenance closet and headed out for construction-site sand. It was nearly 2 a.m.
My clandestine sand run was successful.
But, as I carried and then dragged the bucket down the street and up the stoop I was thinking that the sand was really, really heavy.
After the tree was standing firmly and had been watered heavily, I went to bed. I fell asleep wrapped in the smell of fresh greenery, the smell of Christmas.
Later that afternoon, I was decorating the tree with a couple of strands of newly-purchased lights and ornaments. The phone rang. It was Randy.
“Pack a bag for a couple of days, Stephen. And come to Philly. Elaine is taking the whole cast out for Christmas dinner. Partners are invited!”
He didn’t have to sell me on the idea of breaking bread with Elaine Stritch and the Company company. I took an express bus from Port Authority. Dinner at Zorba’s was an endless feast of moussaka, stuffed grape leaves, old theatre stories, wine, a couple of lightly veiled actress-on-actress stabs in the back, and riotous laughter.
Back on West 51st Street.
The Christmas tree looked tragic. I got a pitcher of water, poured it on the sand, and it rolled right off and down onto the floor. I poked at the sand with my finger. It was hard as a rock—or cement to more accurate. My stolen sand turned out to have been premixed dry concrete.
Rigor mortis had set in. Now, far too rigid and broad to fit through the door, I had to dismember the poor old tree with a hacksaw—branch by branch by branch.
1971 ended to the sounds of thump, thud, thump as I dragged the trunk of the naked tree—still firmly embedded in the bucket of cement—down the stairs, down the stoop, and out to the curb.
Christmastime forty-two years later.
On a day in late December 2013, an envelope arrived. The return address was: Carlyle Hotel, New York City. On the enclosed notecard, Elaine wrote, “You remembered me at Xmas time. Thank you.”
It was Elanie’s last Christmas; she died the following July.