Holiday Hell

Nowadays, I can think of plenty of reasons why Bob Cratchit -- that Christmas-loving character from Charles Dickens -- might turn into Ebenezer Scrooge: The holiday sales that seem to begin in July. The demand for presents that cost more than your mortgage. The Santa at the mall who bears a disturbing resemblance to that guy featured on America's Most Wanted.

But if you want a quick and easy way to hate the holidays, try selling Christmas trees.

As an English major in the 1970s, the world of business was wide open to me: computer programming, international finance, rocket science. But I went for something more challenging: a two-buck-an-hour job selling Christmas trees for a cluttered East Memphis nursery whose name I won't mention.

The first problem, I discovered, with selling Christmas trees is that customers want them in December. And December happens to be in the winter. Now rain, sleet, and snow don't keep the postal service from their appointed rounds, and unfortunately they never stopped Joe and Jan Suburbia from coming to our nursery, and I was the guy who had to help them pick out the tree of their dreams, while standing in that rain, sleet, and snow.

Our selection wasn't the best. I don't know where Christmas trees come from, but our nursery apparently smuggled in theirs from Mexico. Every few weeks, a rusty truck would unload hundreds of skinny, brownish sticks, bundled in twine. These were Christmas trees? If anything, they looked like giant pronto pups. Cutting the twine didn't make the branches spring open. Neither did tapping the stump on the ground, which just caused a shower of dead needles to fall off.

When this happened in front of a customer, I explained, "Nothing to worry about. This particular species always sheds its first needles in its early stages." What I didn't tell them was that this tree in its late stages -- by that, I meant two days later -- would become a flammable bundle of tinder that would burst into flames as soon as they plugged in the lights.

People are very particular about a certain type of tree, but I missed that class on "Evergreen Identification 101." If somebody said, "We must have a Douglas fir, because that's the kind Mamaw had for the past 25 years," well, whaddya know, we have Douglas firs right here. Or Scotch pines. Or rare Tasmanian spruces. "Give the customer what they want," that was my motto.

Even though people wanted "real" trees, they also demanded perfection. But it just doesn't work that way. I would twirl a tree this way and that, while the customer would scrutinize it as if he were adopting an orphan, and finally pronounce, "Well, that branch on the back is a little crooked." So I'd pull out another, and another, and another, until finally they drove away to Target to buy a tree in a box.

And, size does matter. Even if we somehow found a decent tree, some kid slobbering on a Snickers would whine, "Daddy, it's not tall enough." And so we would start all over, with the family finally purchasing a nine-foot cedar for their eight-foot ceilings. This, I knew, would cause a fight ("Look out, you're scratching the ceiling, Henry!") which -- I secretly hoped -- would culminate in a Christmas Day divorce.

The hardest sales, though, were the ones involving the "live" trees, their roots bundled in a soggy, beachball-sized dirt clod wrapped in burlap, so the whole thing weighed about 200 pounds. Customers were far more demanding with these. After all, this tree would grace their front lawn forever. Or so they thought. Personally, I estimated our trees' chance of survival after Christmas at 10 percent, tops.

And once they had made their purchase, I had to drag this muddy monster to their car, and by using all my strength (did I mention I was an English major?) heave it into their trunk, while the customer would admonish me, "Try not to get any dirt in the car." I always smiled as that big dirt ball hit the trunk floor and murky water drained out like the Mississippi Delta.

My tree-selling career ended two days before Christmas. A customer actually bought a scruffy pine, and I was tugging it from a clump of others, when a limb whipped free and smacked me across the face. The needles sliced my left eyeball open. The pain was intense, I couldn't keep that eye open, and tears dribbled down my face. The customer ignored my dilemma, apparently not even wondering, "Why is this man crying?" I think she was mainly concerned that my eyeball had damaged her tree. Somehow I managed to get it to her car, clocked out of the nursery, and drove to the emergency room.

At the hospital, the doctors couldn't save my eye, so they came up with a neat solution. They plucked an ornament from the Christmas tree in the lobby, and by using a bit of vaseline, popped it right in the empty socket. Sure, the hook scratches a bit, but by blinking real hard, I've learned to roll that glass ball around so you can read the words painted in glitter across the surface: "Happy Holidays!" 

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