I met a medley of characters during my month-long stint as a professional ‘tree man,’ hocking obscenely-priced Christmas trees on 3rd Avenue. There was Jimmy — a homeless man who carried his life in a squeaky-wheeled shopping cart and who’d been a drunk for so long that the brown of his iris blended into his white sclera in a quarter-inch gradient. He stopped by the tree stand every day, often bringing me and my fellow tree men pasta in huge trays distributed by the local church. Cyndi Lauper’s retired manager was a sweetheart — she tipped me ten dollars for setting up a Douglas Fir while she chain-smoked menthols and talked of the nineteen eighties. There was the millionaire rap star who took ten minutes selecting a three dollar wreath for the grill of his Bentley. Over December, 2001, I met hundreds of characters. Ron was the strangest.
Ron walked up to me an my coworker Frank and introduced himself. We started our pitch on the superior quality of our Canadian Balsams.
“You’re not going to get trees this nice at Home Depot,” Frank began.
I took my cue: “Bend the branches like this,” demonstrating, “they’re so strong because the sap’s still so fresh. These were chain cut a week ago in Nova Scotia.”
“So they’re not going to dry out in a week like the trees you’ll get down the street,” Frank broke in.
This was our banter. Our vast knowledge of the coniferous came from half a page of 16-point Helvetica double-speak, but the customers never had many questions. They either bought or passed. Ron was the only customer to ever stump us with a query:
“You guys get hard all the time because of the scent?”
Frank and I looked at each other, then at him, unsure we’d heard correctly.
“What do you mean exactly,” I braved.
“Hard,” he continued, “you know, an erection. Somethin’ about the smell of Christmas trees that just does it to me. A lot of guys I think — my brother too.”
Frank’s face contorted. He looked at me, telepathing What the fuck is this guy.
I started, “Hasn’t really been a problem. I don’t think…”
“Sometimes even Pine Sol’ll do it for me.”
Frank was nervously rocking on one foot, “Um, well…”
“I’ll just be cleaning up. Scrubbing the tile or whatever, and whoosh, like a rock. Hard. And then you gotta do somethin’ about it.”
“Never happened to me,” Frank curtly interjected, ending his part in the conversation by walking away.
“Pine Sol, man. You know what I mean?”
I’d been bombing pitches all day and was still hoping for a sale, so I didn’t follow Frank.
“Never happened to me either,” I said before leading to, “how high are your ceilings? We’ve got some nice eight-footers over here.”
“I don’t know how you guys stand it.”
“It’s easy,” I said, “this one here’s a hundred twenty, but worth every penny.”
He quivered as he burrowed his nose into the branches of an eight foot Balsam. Head buried in foliage, he quivered, “You guys deliver?”
We did, for a ten dollar fee. I knew I could bill him the ten but leave it off the receipt, pocketing the surcharge for my trouble. Delivery meant a tip too. Thirty dollars total, I said to myself. I looked at the bulge in Ron’s khaki pants, gulped, and considered the risk. I was a head taller and flaccid, so I reasoned I could outrun Ron should he have dark deeds in mind. “Fifteen dollar delivery charge,” I said.
“Okay,” he mumbled, looking embarrassed by my glance. He reached into his pants to wedge down his erection. “Let’s get this baby home.”
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