Loyal worker returns each year to Christmas tree lot on Northeast D.C. corner


Teresa's Garden center at the intersection of Montana and New York avenues on Dec. 5 in Washington, D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

In his weekly series, staff writer Robert Samuels explores the District, street corner by street corner.

Ray Foster eyed the pickup truck as it pulled into the parking lot, overflowing with evergreens that prickled to the touch. More Fraser firs — real Christmas trees — were ready for the selling.

Foster reached into the trunk, bear-hugged each 30-pound tree and placed them in the lot at the intersection of Montana and New York avenues NE, at a store with a large sign reading “Garden Center.” It was easy lifting for him. Foster is well over six feet tall, balding and burly. In his T-shirt matching black overalls, he professed that three of his loves are lifting heavy objects, tending to gardens and Christmastime.

So lifting trees, pruning them and sawing trunks until they are even are the components of his dream job. Every Christmas tree lot has a person like this, with a nearly indescribable love for working during the holidays. At the garden center, Foster’s hands are often the last to touch a tree before the family laces it with the season’s glitz.

He left his home in Southeast Washington almost a decade ago. But every year, he finds himself back here.

“Best job I could get, only job I can get with the economy the way it is,’” Foster said. “It’s a job that I like very much.”

If you are traveling to or from Route 50 in the District, chances are you’ve seen this outdoor lot. Its most recent incarnation was “Obama Headquarters,” where T-shirts with a graphic likeness of the 44th president with an embroidered “Yes, We Can” hung from an outside stand.

Now it is Christmas headquarters. The Obama T-shirts are obscured by large wreaths and the cut-outs of faces of black Santa Clauses. Small, multicolored lights seemingly float in the air. A radio station playing holiday hits blasts music amid the firs and spruces.

The lot’s owner has been selling here for almost two decades. He is a cautious man, who becomes irascible when asked to put his name on record.

“Next thing I know, I’ll have all these cousins I’ve never met askin’ me for money,” he barked. “Don’t want that.”

He showed a piece of his heart about 15 years ago, when Foster’s parents begged him to give their son a job. Foster had trouble focusing, needed to work with his hands. The owner gave him a shot.

“What a good man,” Foster said. “If it weren’t for him, I would never have enough money during Christmas.”

Not a holiday season has passed since without Foster working on the lot. He moved with his family to an area outside Hopewell, Pa., where he has been unable to hold on to a job in tough times. The job here is more than just busy work for a young teenager; it is now sustenance after months of hard times. The owner relies on him so much that he pays to put Foster up in a hotel to work during the holidays.

With three weeks left in the season, there isn’t much business yet on weekdays. Although the corner is on a major thoroughfare, the center doesn’t get much commuter traffic. The few customers are people like 30-year-old Takeisha Glover, those who live nearby and come here as a tradition.

Glover’s five-foot fraser cost $40. Foster sawed the trunk until it was even, then helped hoist it on the sport-utility vehicle Glover drove in.

“I love my tree!” Glover told her friends, hardly saying a word to the man who hauled it.

A Wal-Mart is proposed to be built across the street. If it comes, who knows what it might do to business. The blogosphere is predicting this lot’s inevitable demise.

Across the street, the traffic headed into Maryland was thick with the sound of car horns. Traffic coming in the opposite direction whizzed by.

All that hoopla was drowned out by the sound of the Chipmunks’ Christmas song about the holidays and hula-hoops.

“ALVIN!” Foster screamed jokingly, in tune with the music.

Foster swept wood chips and pine needles as the song continued. A dust cloud caked the feet of his overalls, but there is nary a time of year when picking up fallen fronds smells so sweet.

Robert Samuels

Do you have a favorite intersection? E-mail the reporter at samuelsr@washpost.com. For more in this series, go to postlocal.com.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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