I can remember Christmas Tree shopping as a kid when my father would drag us to at least six lots before finally settling on the perfect tree. I remember the feeling of excitement as we drove from the lot across from Quick Check to another lot in Westfield, then maybe over to Bowcraft (was there a tree lot there?) and up to a couple in New Providence and Berkeley Heights. Bounding around in the red M&M delivery van (once or twice with our Fanwood cousins) we would spend the entire evening combing the area for what would be the centerpiece of our Christmas holidays.
With those memories in mind, I enthusiastically agreed when Tan asked me if we wanted to manage a Christmas tree lot in California. I pictured us eagerly assisting joyous customers as they picked out their trees on our small lot. I envisioned myself happily pulling out the various trees for people as their small children stood staring in wonderment, the family picturing each one I displayed for them covered with their own ornaments.
These thoughts were a hazy, faint memory as I lugged the 114th 7’ Noble Fir off the delivery truck in the pouring rain. With only 164 more of various sizes left to unload, and the knowledge that we would be getting another delivery of roughly the same amount in a few days, I had to ask myself what in the name of Saint Nicholas was I thinking? Sloshing through the mud and dumping the load from my rain soaked shoulders onto the growing pile of trees, I couldn’t help but think about last years’ Christmas in Florida and how the spirit of the season remained so elusive until Christmas Eve itself… but oh how good that sun and warmth would feel right now! Let me back up a little...
We probably should have known this operation was going to be a bit bigger than anticipated when a steady stream of teenage boys starting showing up at the RV to fill out job applications. Tan and I figured we’d do the majority of the work ourselves so as to maximize our overall profit. How many guys would we really need? After all, how hard could it be? Show a few trees, carry one out to a car, tie it on if need be. No big deal. The kids could certainly help if needed, right? Right! But oh so wrong.
Parked near the lot next to us was a storage trailer. Once work began getting the lot ready it finally dawned on me that this was much more than we thought. Fortunately the area was already set up with fencing, posts and railing, etc. We just needed to set up the tents, decorate, put out the water bowls(?), set up the flocking machine (Flocking? What‘s that?), run power to the flocking machine, run power to the pre-drilling machine(?), make sure the chain saws were running, make sure the cash register worked, make sure we had flame retardant to spray on a tree if necessary(?), learn how to change the nets on the netter(?), set up the stereo… On and on it went as we looked at each other, our eyes glazing over with the knowledge that we had no idea what we were doing and wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. However, salvation came in the form of Dale. A relative of the lot’s owner, he was assigned the initial task of getting us organized and help us get the lot ready for business. Without his help I don’t know how we would have gotten our act together in time to open for the crushing throngs of people that wanted to purchase their trees on Black Friday.
Then the trees arrived… and arrived. And arrived some more. Not only did we carry the usual assortment of 6 – 8 foot trees, we had 9, 10, 11, and a few 12 foot trees. By this point we wisely had a full staff of high school and college age kids to help unload. My knees grew weak at the prospect of having to load (or even deliver) one of these monsters onto someone’s car or truck. My only hope was that when we sold any of these gargantuans that I would have enough staff to give me a hand. Of course the small trees were not a problem and even Mercy was able to earn some keep by unloading the 3 – 5 footers.
From that day on, our lives were filled with nothing but the constant stream of Christmas music, the ever present aroma of the trees, and the intermittent sound of the chain saws. And flocking…
I had never heard of flocking before but was soon getting my first lesson on how to flock a tree. Flocking is the practice (it’s actually an art…) of spraying fake snow on a tree. I don’t mean the spray cans you buy at your local craft store, this is an operation that I soon discovered Californians take very seriously. The dry flock is drawn through a hose into the flocking gun where it meets another intake of water and the combination is then sprayed on the tree in such a manner as to give it the most realistic snowed-upon look as possible. The flock being a chemical, I had to don a mask, goggles, and coverall (actually a black plastic trash bag with head and arm holes cut out) so as not to breathe or get the wet flock on me. At one point I actually had an EPA guy tell me to make sure I had my mask on while spraying this stuff!
Soon enough we were ready. The next few weeks were spent running the lot from 9 – 9 every day. Tan would open while I hung back at the RV working my regular job. With the mornings not an especially busy time for tree shopping, I could work peacefully while getting the occasional interruption if she needed help with a larger tree or if things got a little too busy. The kids would do some school work then head down in the afternoon. River was able to make quite a bit of money being the only helper on the lot before any of the staff showed up. The Bay Area weather being mild, it was pleasant to get outside a bit and then spend my entire afternoons and evenings in this merry holiday atmosphere. As holiday music constantly played, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the good feelings that the holidays bring. Perhaps I was making up for last year!
The town of Walnut Creek was a most pleasant place to spend the season. With a little shopping area within walking distance, we could get groceries and other necessities quickly and conveniently. Although the lot was located a few miles from the actual town center, when time allowed (not often and after 9pm!) we enjoyed running down to do a little Christmas shopping and perhaps grab a beer.
Finally as the season wore down and after selling a multitude of trees, it was time to bring things to a close. Late Christmas Eve, after our final day of selling trees, I was taking Daisy for her usual nighttime walk. I had circled the block as I usually did and upon returning to the lot saw a car parked there. A man emerged dressed all in black. Black cap, black coat, black pants. The only way to describe him was that he had the look of a cartoon burglar from the 1950’s. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he were wearing a mask!
Ducking into the shadows so as not to be seen, I watched as he quietly made his way over to the small pile of remaining trees (that we had been selling that day for the bargain price of $25). With no more fencing to keep people out, the trees were left in the open for anyone’s taking. I silently followed a little behind and when he reached down to grab a tree, I asked if I could help him. He looked up with a pained expression on his face, realizing that he had been caught. He kindly asked if I minded him helping himself and I decided that since it was Christmas Eve and we wouldn’t be selling any more trees anyway, he was welcome to it. He was very thankful, explaining that his daughter was hoping to wake up to a Christmas Tree and that he wasn’t capable of buying one earlier.
As he started to drag the tree back to his car, feeling an overpowering wave of Christmas spirit, I reached down and picked up the other end. Being touched by his story and not being able to bear seeing the tree so mistreated, I couldn’t help myself. Suddenly and ironically it dawned on me that I was doing exactly what I had asked him… I was indeed helping him. Helping him to steal one of our trees!
Going to bed that night with the comforting feeling of knowing that for the first time in a month we had no responsibilities the next day, I thought of what an exhausting, yet exhilarating experience it was. The kids learned a lot about working a small business. With Mercy helping with the register she got a hands on lesson in customer service and continued her math lessons by making change without the aid of a machine. Riv also got his fair share of customer service by helping people with their trees and loading them into cars. Once he realized the tips he could make, it was sometimes hard to keep him off the lot!
Tan and I got to work together all day, every day and I enjoyed the evenings when it was just the two of us for the last hour, listening to the Christmas music, and trying to keep warm in the little shed, occasionally stepping out to help the few customers that came tree shopping at night. The physical work and time spent outdoors contributed to my overall feelings of healthiness and self satisfaction and I can’t remember a more joyous holiday season in years. The only thing that could have improved it was the presence of friends and family who were hopefully enjoying their own feelings of goodwill back home.