It takes a special person to convince strangers to let you bring a 110-ton crane onto their property to rip out their beloved tree and drive off with it.
Yet year after year, Erik Pauze does just that.
He’s the head gardener at Rockefeller Center, where he’s worked for 34 years. In that role, Pauze cares for thousands of plants across the complex, but his most well-known project – the one that millions of people will admire, judge and take selfies with — is the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, and it’s been part of a tradition dating back to the Great Depression.
The tree will be lit this Wednesday night on national television in a two-hour prime-time special.
On a drizzly November morning, a crowd lined the plaza at Rockefeller Center. For hours, they watched as Pauze’s team of about 30 workers lifted the 14-ton tree – first on its side into the air, then into an upright position – with an assist from a giant crane.
“I feel bad for the tree,” someone quipped when it was over.
“Why?” replied Pauze. “The tree makes millions of people happy every single day. Wouldn’t you want that job?”
Pauze actually has that job.
He spends a good deal of his time thinking about Christmas trees: When he’s driving home from nurseries or talking to arborists at parties. Some days he’ll drive alone for hours, scouting and seeing only trees that don’t make the cut.
Pauze has loved trees since he was a kid planting them in his aunt's backyard, trying to figure out why some grew and others didn’t.
He found this year’s tree back in May while driving to see another contender. It’s a Norway spruce – it always is, because they’re big, full and sturdy.
He eventually tracked down one of the tree’s owners, Neil Lebowitz, who agreed to meet at a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. They clicked, and by June, Pauze was regularly visiting the tree to water and treat it.
In New York City for the tree’s arrival, Lebowitz said he no longer thought of it as his tree: “I just think it's a nice gift and that’s great and let’s enjoy it.”
On Wednesday, about 6 million people will tune in to enjoy that gift. The former small-town tree will be draped in 50,000 lights and adorned with a 900-pound star designed by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. It is the only tree in America for which Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani are the warm-up acts.
And yet, Pauze doesn’t cop to feeling any pressure or stress.
In interviews, he answers questions like a quarterback giving a post-game debrief: Few words, quiet confidence and loads of praise for his team.
When asked how he felt before the tree’s installation: “We have a job to do and we just get down and do it.”
And how he felt after: “We got a bunch of professionals working on a tree. It's gonna come out beautiful.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his no-nonsense manner, his heroes are the people who show up and make the city work.
A few days after the tree was lifted into place, when the decoration process was underway, Pauze was in good spirits. He was wearing a pine-green polo shirt and a matching fleece sweater and hard hat. The previous day, his team had gotten the star up on the first try.
“We hit it first shot dead center,” he said.
That may not sound like much if you’re envisioning plopping an ordinary star on an ordinary tree. But the star on the Rockefeller Center Christmas weighs half a ton and has 70 bedazzled spikes – in terms of mass, it's akin to sticking a Harley Davidson or a refrigerator on a tree on the first go. The process involved yet another crane, 32 feet of pipe and master riggers lifting it up and over 90 feet of scaffolding.
Up 10 flights of scaffolding you can see the just-installed star up close.
From 90 feet in the air, Pauze looked down at Rockefeller Center, where he could see his work: the Channel Gardens (his favorite), rooftop gardens and the trees lining the complex. He said he never gets tired of the view.
“I'm always seeing what needs to be done,” he said. “You say, 'oh, look at that tree. Maybe I gotta prune those branches.'”
You can see the tree all lit up daily, from 6 a.m. to midnight. On Christmas, it will be illuminated all day, and on New Year’s Eve, it will be lit from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. The tree is located at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. In January, it will be milled for lumber and donated to Habitat for Humanity.