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New York Stories

David Usborne on how trees from Quebec come to town, and the seeds of revolt over new smoking laws

'Tis the season to be hospitable and Bart Miazga is always ready if anyone wants to linger for a chat. He has two comfy chairs, a table lamp and hot coffee. It helps if the weather is mild – his front room is a few square feet of open pavement on Avenue A in Manhattan.

Mr Miazga is no tramp. Instead, he is one of scores of Canadians who make an annual pilgrimage to New York to sell Christmas trees on the street. Lapland is a long way from Gotham but at least the pine forests of Quebec are here, if only for a few weeks and in small clumps.

This the 12th year that Mr Miazga, 36, has done the Christmas tree run to Manhattan. The routine is always the same. Cram his battered blue Chevrolet van with the necessities for six weeks of winter living, head south and rendezvous with a lorry piled with firs that he has himself harvested on a farm near to his home town of St Malo on the Quebec/New Hampshire border.

How did it happen that for years Manhattanites have relied on these lumberjacks from Quebec to furnish their homes with six feet of needles and bark at Christmas? For one, Quebec is where the trees grow. Second, the Quebecois know they can sell them here for the three times the price they would fetch in Montreal. And finally, they can take advantage of a New York City law that allows them to park themselves and their firs on its streets for six straight weeks without fear of being bothered.

It seems like hard living but Mr Miazga shrugs. For the past couple of years, he has been affiliated with the church of Mary Help of Christ here in the East Village. Just across a car park from his spot, the church gives him free electricity (for the small heater hidden inside the van for the long cold nights) as well as a place to shower. "We don't have to smell any more," he confides.

And, of course, there is the money. He baulks slightly at the suggestion that he and all of his Christmas tree-hawking compatriots vanish from here on Christmas Eve only to spend the rest of the year living off their profits in the Caribbean. "I am a family man with kids, so there is none of that for me." But, he admits, the cash in hand is good at least for two months' break from his other job: sculpting wood and making African drums.

And he appreciates his urban customers, many of whom return to him year after year. He has one very prominent lawyer who never lets him down, but he thinks better of naming him. He admits, though, that this year he detects a bit of a down mood in the city. "Last year, after 9/11, I think people were still in shock, but this year reality has set in and I can see the long-term economic pain having an effect." Still, he has been selling briskly and last week had to order more trees from the cold north that is his real home.

We smokers are feeling gloomy after last week's final decision by City Hall to ban lighting up in all of New York's restaurants and bars. But what of the owners who must now say farewell to the ashtrays and, one suspects, to a fair number of their regulars? You have to wonder, for instance, about Café Leibovitz, a haunt of this writer on the Lower East Side that is famous for letting customers smoke at any table, out of respect for the photographer whose name it has taken. Annie, after all, is famous for her love of the habit.

They need look no further than Delaware for evidence that their worries are well founded. The tiny state is in the third week of a similarly draconian smoking ban and bar and restaurant owners are down in the dumps. Many are threatening to challenge the new law in the courts as they report that their business has been down between 25 and 50 per cent. That must surely hurt.

Dan McAvaney, owner of McAvaney's Pub in Wilmington, Delaware, says small bar owners have no choice but to fight the ban. "Another couple of months of this and we go out of business."