The Sucker Tree
December 15, 2008
This is the season you often hear “I wish Christmas could last all year!” Not this citizen. At least not as it is “celebrated” by most of contemporary society. The advertising season has already been stretched to a good three months but I managed to resist ’til last week and so far I have only had to brave the Maul twice. (Yes, I know you think I misspelled that word. But no, you should have been with me – it was “maul” in every “sense,” my sensibilities particularly.)
Have you noticed that the folks who sell Christmas trees begin to fence off their lots before Thanksgiving? I figure they have their sights set on Halloween next year. That chain-link corral in the middle of the Maul parking lot serves warning that the Christmas blitz is bearing down; brace yourself. This prime real estate may stand empty for a week or so but then it seems to fill overnight with a variety of greenery, bluery, silvery, and pinkery intended to warm the heart of every self-taught interior decorator assaulting the face of the planet. And can someone please tell me how you judge the shape of a bundled tree? Invariably the young man tending the lot, someone apparently drafted from a surrounding store based on his lack of seniority, will dutifully repeat for you the sum total of his Christmas tree training ” ]
“It will spread out to its natural shape in a day or two!” But what was its “natural” shape back in September before it got wrapped like the “Mummy?”
It was not always so. Recently my son reminded me of Christmas tree shopping back when he still couldn’t reach the angel, even standing on the kitchen stool. About two weeks before the much awaited day the four of us would load up and head for town. Now this town didn’t have a Maul, a Mall, or even a shopping center. In fact, it would be big news when it finally got its one and only traffic light. And to call what we did “shopping” would be less than accurate. We knew exactly where we were going to find a tree, the same place we got one the year before, and the year before that, and there was no need to look elsewhere on the off-hand chance that the town had two people selling trees.
On the north side of town the homes were, shall we say, modest. That is the polite term. They were in fact small. Most had been built a half-century earlier, some before that. But the yards were well cared for, as were the well-built homes. For some reason it seems it was usually evening when we found time to get our tree. And had we not known the town it would have been easy to miss our destination, for no sign, lighted or otherwise, marked the home of this Christmas tree peddler. Nor was there any advertising except for the tried and true tradition of word-of-mouth. What’s that old saw, “the best advertising is a satisfied customer?” And we always were.
We’d stop in front of the house, or if the parking was crowded by other tree buyers – that would mean as many as two other vehicles – you could park in front of the house next door. In extreme cases one could make a “uey” and park across the street though I never recall having to do that. Oh, and no one ever came out of those houses to question why you were parking “on their property?” Was that Christmas Spirit or just Small Town spirit?
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Whoever laid out that part of town did not believe in wasting space. The small houses were set in narrow yards. The four of us would head down the walk and just before reaching the porch we’d bear left and proceed along the house. Halfway back we would see the single bulb “yard light” that was in fact the porch light, its intended function apparently was to make nighttime navigation of the back steps less than suicidal. When you reached the step you were on the edge of the Christmas “tree lot,” which for the other 50 weeks of the year served as the backyard. Like the front, this yard was narrow but a bit longer, reaching back to the alley.
There was no need to pause at the step. One did not need to ring the doorbell, if indeed, one existed. Chances were good that we might be the only people in the yard. Chances were better that we four constituted the majority there, should other tree seekers be about.
The process was simple. We walked among the trees and looked. None were bundled; none had ever been. Shorter trees lined the fences on either side of the yard. Taller trees were habitually propped up on the wires of the clothes line. Economics, and our own small house, prompted us to concentrate our shopping along the fences. Cool, small town evening air, scented by piney perfume from the freshly cut trees invited us to breathe deeply, to take it in. This, too, was part and parcel of the experience of getting a tree.
If you sought a tree toward the back of the yard, beyond the 60-watt “glow” of the porch light and the yellowed light filtering from the porch windows, seeing the actual shape of your selection required a considerable imagination. You could stand the tree up, spin it, and examine it with four sets of eyes and still not be sure of its true shape. The solution was simple. You dragged the tree near the step and repeated the process. Everyone got to vote but in reality it was Mom’s vote that carried the issue. Young eyes were so filled with excitement that most trees got a thumbs-up. I could only see one side of a tree at a time; Mom had 3-D vision, and still does. We might drag up a second or even a third tree for examination but typically the selection process required only a few pleasant minutes (since we had no white, pink, silver, or tin trees to deal with).
Now came the best part of our tree buying trip. The house and the yard full of Christmas trees belonged to Marcus the Barber. As far back as I could remember Marcus had cut hair for most of the males of the town and the countryside beyond. He began cutting my hair once I was old enough to escape Mom’s homemade haircuts. I soon learned that Marcus the Barber possessed one of the essential qualities of all popular tonsorial artists, he could, would, and appeared to enjoy carrying on a conversation with virtually every occupant of his chair. Likewise, I learned that as long as you kept talking he kept clipping. That was not good in the days when Elvis was setting the standard in matters of manly hair. Yet, despite regular contact with this gentleman I never learned his full name, he was simply “Marcus the Barber,” you know, sort of like Attila the Hun or Alexander the Great. Some folks only need one name.
Marcus had retired from his first career and had become “Marcus the Barber who sells Christmas trees.” I can’t say what he did the other 50 weeks but once each year we reestablished our acquaintance, and always in the same way. By the time the family had settled upon a tree and brought it near the step Marcus would appear. His style was as far from “high pressure” as could be imagined. Here indeed it was a matter of self-service and letting reputation sell the product. Standing on the step it seemed that he hardly glanced at the tree as he invited us in to his porch and Christmas-time office. As I recall he sold trees strictly by height and apparently he was content eyeballing a tree to fix its price, and I never heard of a customer who had a problem with this.
Once inside the porch it was obvious that collecting money was not the first thing on Marcus’ mind. Since he knew several generations of local folks it was his opportunity to do a bit of checking up on family status, progress, and so forth. I would be required to report on my kin while he undertook a personal inspection of my offspring, no doubt making various mental connections and assessments between the generations. The same procedure was duly expected of my wife and her lineage.
At some point money changed hands but this seemed decidedly secondary in the overall transaction. At this juncture Mrs. Marcus the Barber became involved. If change was needed she made it from a drawer in the old wooden desk that sat just inside the door, otherwise she simply dropped the bills into the drawer with no apparent concern about denomination or order, though I do vaguely recall a cigar box somehow involved on at least one visit. Once the obligatory commercial requirements had been carried out, the moment had arrived for the sucker tree. Perched upon the same desk was a smallish evergreen decorated with suckers of assorted flavors.
It may only be my recollection of events too long past, events definitely colored by Christmas Spirit, but I still cherish the thought that in our annual encounter, it was the giving of these small Christmas treats that brought a glow to the faces of Marcus and Mrs. Marcus the Barber. Perhaps it is the fact that Ruth and I have been blessed with children that are courteous and respectful, that do not demand but respect the giver more than the gift. I do know this. On one occasion as Jeff entered the porch of this gracious old couple he removed his cap. Mrs. Marcus the Barber, who habitually deferred to her husband in matters of the Sucker Tree, launched into a veritable treatise on the state of youth, and on their manners, both fine and flawed. At the end of her discourse, during which it was Marcus the Barber who deferred but nodded assent, Jeff’s good manners had earned him two suckers, and Pam, all quietness, big eyes, and smiles, was an equal benefactor.
Perhaps it was no big thing, this seasonal ritual of Christmas tree “shopping,” family updating, and a simple little Sucker Tree. But no, to us it was a big thing, and I would return to it in a moment if I could.