Christmas On Jane Street

When they first took their camper van to Manhattan to sell fir trees, the Romp family of Vermont were cold-shouldered. Now, writes Jemima Evans, their annual visits are like scenes from a Capra movie, inspiring hardbitten New Yorkers to embrace in the street
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
NEW YORK CITY is so noisy. All these people shouting and the taxis hooting and cyclists blowing whistles. It's "move over lady," "get outta da way," "whadda ya want?" Rush rush, bustle bustle, push shove. Get here, go there, buy this, do that ... that's New York City.

There's no peace.

There's no quiet.

There's no goodwill to all men.

But amid this unrelenting maelstrom of a city comes, each Christmas, if not a real-life Santa then a fair impression of him. Billy Romp, Christmas- tree salesman, loving parent and all-round good guy. The story of how he and his family managed to warm the cockles of hardened New York hearts has just been published by William Morrow in the US. This small book, Christmas on Jane Street, is bringing a tear to the eye of Americans across the country. It's about how, every year, Romp and his family (wife Patti, children Ellie, Henry and Little Timmy) travel from Vermont to Manhattan to sell his trees. The Romps park their ancient camper van on Jane Street in Greenwich Village and then set about dispensing goodwill to all who pass by. Their electri-city is provided by Philippe, the helpful cafe owner across the street, the van is "ignored" by the local traffic warden, showers are taken in a variety of apartments in the surrounding area. Old friendships are strengthened, new friendships are made. It is the perfect Christmas, feel-good tale. Which is exactly why it makes everyone cry.

It all started 11 years ago. Newly married Billy and Patti Romp were doing a little holistic massage, eating macrobiotic food and running a makeshift B&B in Vermont. Their first child, Ellie, was in nappies. They were thinking of cutting down the B&B side of things (too difficult with a baby) but were worried about money. Then a friend suggested they sell Christmas trees in New York. What a crazy idea! said Billy and Patti. Us in New York? Us country types in the big, bad city? Forget it. And their neighbours, most of whom had never been to a city, let alone New York City, agreed with them. You can't take a baby there, they said. Everyone has guns. Everyone is on drugs! Stay here, Romps, stay here!

But Billy and Patti Romp like to go against the grain, so the idea grew. Christmas trees are cheap, you sell them for a decent price, you make a lot of money. Next thing they knew, they were parked on the corner of Jane and Eighth.

Their friend had told them it was a good spot. It didn't seem that way to Billy and Patti. Too many cars. Too many people. And a baby in nappies. They sold trees, but not enough. The money was hardly good for a month. They put the baby in the van and returned to their sweet home vowing never to do it again.

Of course, they were back the next year. To their surprise, people greeted them, people who had never even acknowledged them seemed happy to see the rusty little camper back on the corner. "Great to see you," they said to the Romps. And then, the year after, people gave them keys to their apartments. "Hey, come and have a bath any time, or use the phone, or whatever," they said. They met Philippe, who gave them electricity and food and coffee. And, as the years went by, and they had more children and they sold more trees, they met more and more people and made more and more friends. Now their trip has become a tradition, with the Romps fond of Manhattan and Manhattan fond of the Romps.

"We're a little breath of fresh air," says Romp, patting tousled Tim on the head. "We bring a bit of country-living with us. I mean people cannot believe we live in a camper van for a month a year."

It does seem small - they have to pee in a jar and every night they all climb into the roof-top bed to sleep. There is a small three-ring cooker and no-where to wash. God knows how Patti produces three cooked meals a day, but she does. "I'm very practical," she says. "Come on, Henry," she says to her seven-year-old son. "I need to do the laundry." "I don't want my jeans washed," says Henry. "I want to wear them every day till we go home." "Well, they're so dirty," says his mother, "wear these other ones." "They're too small" wails Henry. "They're Timmy's. Aren't these your jeans, Timmy?" "I got truck," answers Timmy, who is three.

The Romps conquered Manhattan very simply. They just decided to say "Hi" to everyone. Abso-lutely everyone. So the street sweeper got a "Hi!" and the transgender man/woman-person across the street got a "Hi!" and Louis the homeless man, he got the same. Even the grouch from apartment 4e opposite got a "Hi!" (only he never relented in hating those "messy" Romp people). All this Hi-ing and smiling and cheer started to make the Romps rather popular. That and the fact that Billy Romp knows his trees. He really is a very good salesman. "What tree are you looking for?" he asks a young skinny lady. She's fussing around prodding and umm-ing and aah-ing. With some carefully nonchalant questioning, Romp discovers that she doesn't like needles, her ceilings aren't that high and she's going away for three days over Christ-mas. "You need this one," he says, pulling out a little frondy number. The skinny lady buys and then, so happy is she, she kisses everyone on the spot.

"The thing about trees," says Romp, "is that they are all different. They have characters. I can get attached to them. The Balsam fir, you see, is your most traditional and fragrant, but you must water it. Then the Douglas fir is luxurious, more expensive, the mink coat of firs. And the Frasier fir is the Rolls-Royce - elegant, silver. Never drops its needles. It's the most expensive."

Just then another woman comes up. Billy hugs her and they chat away. Meanwhile, Ellie is showing off her Christmas candles (she makes them by attaching candles to the sawn-off stumps of trees and decorates them with ribbons). "$3 each," she's saying solemnly to a customer. It's hard to resist an 11-year-old. "I'm saving up to buy a horse. It'll be all black and I'm going to call it Midnight." The man buys another two, and a set of twigs from Henry at $1 a bunch. Henry hugs the man's arm and says "thank you". The man looks embarrassed but pleased. He goes off hugging his twigs.

Every year the Romps have a dressing-of-the-tree party, when either Ellie or Henry (they take turns) chooses the best tree to be the Romp family tree. Hours and days can go into this decision - which tree will look the best? And that depends on whether it's a Billy or a Patti decorating year, because Billy is a no-tinsel man and Patti is mad for tinsel (again, they take turns). This year it is Ellie's choice. Now that she is 11, she no longer feels the need to ask her father's advice. Billy watches proudly as she carefully studies each tree. "Ellie is great with the trees," he says. "She is strong and she is a good salesgirl. She gives a fair price but won't budge if someone is offering her too little. She is my right-hand helper."

Henry is in a sulk because it's not his turn, but soon he has been encouraged to involve Timmy in helping to pick up the fallen branches to keep the pavement clean. "Branch," says Timmy waving a fir stick in front of him. All the pedestrians tearing from here to there smile. It is a pretty rare sight to see three children careering round the pavements with wet hair and dirty jeans, especially three children who smile at you and say "Hello!" "I have an honest, earnest, loving family," says Billy. "Our simplicity, it appeals to everybody. We have what most people may never have had, yet crave so much. Our gift to people is a slice of our harmonious family life and our love at Christmas time. If we help one person realise they love their family then ... well, then part of our job here is done. And as long as we are alive," he says, "there will be the Romp family on this corner every Christmas."

Billy Romp made me cry - his family is so happy and kind to each other that, try as you might, you cannot just brush them off as, say, simple or schmaltzy. It's like something out of It's a Wonder-ful Life. Even traditionally cynical New Yorkers find it hard not be moved by this cheerful family currently inhabiting a pavement corner in Greenwich Village. Could this only happen at Christmas, when people's guards are lowered and family is at the forefront of people's minds? Of course. But that doesn't lessen the fact that, as I stood watching Billy and his family from the other side of the street, old men came by and hugged him, all blinking a lot and looking away. People of all ages came up clutching Christmas on Jane Street and kissed him or squeezed his arm. Neighbours poured out of doors and hugged him and fussed over Patti and the children. And the kids zoomed around on ancient skateboards and disappeared in and out of doorways and cafes, emerging with bagels and doughnuts and floury faces.

It was a cheery tableau - even more so as surrounding them were the high- rises of New York and the blare of the taxi horns, the screech of the wheels, the endless pounding noise of traffic. It was nice to find a little bit of peace and quiet amid the BLAM BLAM BLAM. And the smell of Billy Romp's firs lingered in the air.