This is the third in an occasional series about Nikola Ivkovic, a Christmas tree seller on Broadway.
The second week of December came, and Nikola Ivkovic got his annual phone call from his best customer.
“You have a tree for me?” the best customer asked.
Mr. Ivkovic did: a wide, 11-foot-tall Fraser fir — for $450. The best customer let out the laugh of someone who knew he was paying too much but did not care, and Mr. Ivkovic got the tree ready for delivery.
The best customer was Michael T. Johnson, a real estate broker and landlord from Harlem who happens to do his banking right next to Mr. Ivkovic’s Christmas tree vending stand on Broadway near 73rd Street. Every year, Mr. Johnson spends a bundle on a big tree from Mr. Ivkovic to put up in front of his Harlem brownstone.
With most deliveries, Mr. Ivkovic’s sidekick, Phil Walstone, throws the tree on his shoulder and lugs it the few blocks to the customer’s apartment. He may hop the subway or a cab for farther-flung customers. But this tree was going to Harlem and took three people to carry, so Mr. Ivkovic hired two extra workers and a van. He stayed behind to sell more trees, but he offered these parting words: “Ask them to show you their Sistine Chapel ceiling.”
Soon, the three delivery men and the tree were bouncing up Amsterdam Avenue in a graffiti-scarred box truck. They pulled up in front of a 19th-century brownstone on Fifth Avenue between 124th and 125th Streets, where Mr. Johnson lives with his partner, Michael Roberts, an English-born theoretical physicist, retired from I.B.M.
Mr. Walstone was assisted by Ruben Sanders, of the Bronx, and Luka Kostic, a Serb who studies math at City College. The men plopped the large tree down on the sidewalk and rustled up some tools, while Mr. Johnson supervised.
“We put the tree out for the neighbors, not for ourselves,” he said. “I’m not religious, but I do like Christmas, so it’s just holiday spirit.”
Mr. Johnson said the tree tradition started nearly 20 years ago as something of a vote of confidence in the integrity of the neighborhood.
“When we moved in, the neighborhood was not in as good shape as it is now,” he said. “People said, ‘Don’t put a tree up; they’ll steal it.’ But I just believed in the neighborhood. At first, some kids stole some bulbs to smash them, but nobody took the tree. Now the neighborhood calls it their tree, and they help us decorate it.”
As he was talking, Mr. Walstone took a saw and gave the bottom of the tree trunk a fresh cut — to help it drink up water better. He was dressed in a blue jumpsuit. It was cold, and you could see his heavy breaths puffing out. He has been delivering a tree to Mr. Johnson for 14 years, and he looks forward to it for three reasons.
“He always invites us in for a shot of Scotch and a tip,” Mr. Walstone said.
The third reason is the brownstone, an 1869 structure that Mr. Johnson and Mr. Roberts bought in 1982, when it was still used as a rooming house. Over the years, they turned it into a sprawling home for themselves with many original details and quirky, flamboyant or playfully erotic touches.
“I’m telling you, you‘ve got to see this place,” Mr. Walstone said with a wink as the men cleared the tiny garden plot in front of the brownstone and dug a shallow hole for the tree. Up went the piney giant, and the men ran four support wires to its upper trunk.
Mr. Johnson invited them in and broke out the Chivas Regal. He seemed to enjoy the tradition as much as they did, and he was not stingy with the good Scotch.
The place was decorated with dozens of heavy antique glass kugel balls from Germany. Mr. Roberts had a roast twirling on the rotisserie, and he stayed out of the way of all this Christmas tree hubbub. He remained in a ground-floor kitchen outfitted with stainless steel appliances and hanging gourmet copper pans.
Fortified with Christmas cheer, Mr. Walstone yelled out for Mr. Johnson to lead a tour of the place. Everyone marched up the stairs — Mr. Walstone looked back and winked again — to the parlor floor. The parlor had a staid Victorian look, with fine, stuffed chairs. But the sky-blue ceiling was — my Heavens! — a brightly colored four-part painting depicting naked, erotic characters from mythology, including Achilles as you have never seen him before. The ceiling was painted by the artist Charles Foster-Hall.
Mr. Sanders looked around and said, “Man, I grew up in Harlem and I’ve never seen anything like this.” Mr. Kostic kept quiet and held onto his drink for dear life.
Mr. Johnson chuckled and led the group up to his bedroom for a look at a similar painting on the ceiling above the bed.
After the tour, Mr. Johnson handed the money to Mr. Kostic. The men left the big tree standing undecorated in front of the Harlem brownstone and headed back to Broadway and 73rd, where Mr. Ivkovic grinned and said: “Did he show you his Sistine Chapel? Did I lie or what?”