The Christmas tree salesmen

December 20, 1993|By Jim Burger

THERE are parts of that night I can remember as if it were yesterday. Others are gone forever; I doubt that even hypnosis would be much help. But already I'm getting ahead of myself.

In the winter of 1980, I was in my junior year at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, and the walls were closing in. An art

school education can do that. It teaches you to open your eyes and take a long look at things, then locks you in a studio. For me, at least, what I wanted to look at was far from the marble floors and brass rails and plaster casts and flaking paintings of school.

I wanted to see the city, alive and close. I wanted to be a part of things. I'd drawn enough. I began to sit in bars (not the usual suspects, either, but real dumps) and buy drinks for the regulars. go to Colts games and miss the action while I talked to the ushers. I'd stay out too late and do it with the wrong people. It was a strange and wonderful time: every experience new, every decision questionable. My mother would not have approved.

The semester ended. Christmas was two days away. Family and friends were gathering in my Pennsylvania hometown for the holidays, but I lingered in Baltimore. There was more I wanted to try. After all, I was an artist now, a man-about-town with a taste for life's underside. No university campus could hold me. No woman could possess me. I was ready to be . . . a Christmas tree salesman.

I'd seen them since I was a kid: those fields and parking lots turned into miniature forests of cut trees illuminated by bare bulbs on makeshift poles. Friends spoke excitedly about trips to the town ball field to choose the "right" tree. They hinted at rituals and traditions, but since I am Jewish, I had little understanding. Christmas tree commerce seemed sacred, and I kept a cautious distance.

It was cold. I dressed in layers, a lesson learned at the drafty Maryland Institute. I filled a flask with blackberry brandy and left my Chase Street apartment. The sun was setting behind me, and the wind pushed me east. Down the hill, over the Fallsway and past the penitentiary, I walked along Chase Street until it ended. I passed abandoned buildings and barking dogs. I zig-zagged through East Baltimore. At Preston, near Gay, my search ended.

They were unloading trees from a truck and stacking them in rows on an empty lot. I walked up and asked if they needed any help. What three black men thought of one white boy asking for work I do not know. They shrugged and nodded. We didn't discuss wages or Social Security. I put on my gloves and went to work.

As the unloading continued, one of the men peeled away from the group and started a fire in a 55-gallon drum. By the time we finished, it was burning steadily. Everyone was huffing and puffing, and all were sweating, but the wind cooled us off fast. We gathered close to the fire. The three men stood on one side, I on the other. One was tall, one was short and one was missing his front teeth. The tall guy handed each of us a beer from a paper bag, and I produced the flask, a sterling silver number that had been my father's before I liberated it. We passed it around. We drank the brandy and chased it with beer. Nothing was said, but I got the impression that I was a good hire.

The neighborhood came alive. Children ran between the rows of trees, adults left their houses and came out to stand by the fire and talk. Some stared at me. Money changed hands, trees were dragged away. A man in a pickup bought six. Another secured three to an old shopping cart and paid some kids to push it. The flask ran low.

I walked with the short guy to the liquor store across the street. He bought more beer and a bottle of wine. I selected the brandy, a cheap brand. The store owner gave us crates that we fed to the fire. We passed around the wine, which we drank from the paper bag like so many cartoon characters. I emptied the brandy into the flask and looked for a place to put the glass bottle. They all gestured toward the fire. A few minutes later, the bottle exploded. "Ness time take the cap off," suggested the one with no teeth.

These guys knew everything. It was just as I had hoped. I was doing something I knew nothing about with people I didn't know. If this wasn't drinking from life's fountain, nothing was.

The service at the nearby church ended, and members of the congregation moved among us as we hid our drinks sheepishly. For hours we sold trees, stuffing them into cars or tying them to roofs. When things got slow, there were jokes and stories.

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