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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tree Day

In the late '50s and early '60s, we always had a real Christmas tree at our house. And we always got it at the same place: from a guy named Whitey who sold them out of his driveway just up the street from us.

Whitey's real name was Dobrzelecki (pronounced something like Dub-zha-LECK-ie). His day job, as I recall, was somehow involved in selling produce and maybe flowers at a farmer's market in a nearby neighborhood. In those days the dads around our way identified themselves by which branch of the service they had served in during World War II. Our dad, who had been a mailman on Guam in the Navy, always made a little face when he mentioned that Whitey had been in the Merchant Marines.

Anyway, early each December, Whitey would bring a truckload of Christmas trees to his house and sell them there. As soon as the trees appeared in his yard early in December, the place would be swarming with neighbors purchasing theirs. Whitey, his wife, or his oldest son Danny would show them all to you, and then you'd check out the price tags wired around the trunks at the bottom. It was cash on the barrelhead, and definitely first come first served. Like everything else at Christmastime, there was a lot of competition for the choicest stuff. And so everybody got there early and bought their tree the first weekend, if not the first day, Whitey had them on display.

The thing was, few people wanted to put their tree up that early. The things would dry out quickly -- who knows how long ago they had been cut by the time they reached the east side of Newark -- and the prevailing wisdom was that if you set yours up in your house and decorated it too early, you'd have a mostly bare tree and rug full of pine needles even before Santa got there. Besides, Christmas trees were a real fire hazard back then, even more so than they are now. We were past the stage where people lit candles on them, but the electric lights were big and hot, and the wiring wasn't always the best. I remember one kind of light that was a series of narrow chambers of colored glass with a clear liquid in them, which lit up, and then bubbled after they had warmed up a bit. A pretty sight, but I can't believe they'd be UL approved today.

For these and other reasons, our parents were not too eager to get going early on this. But hey, no problem, Whitey would hold the tree for you until you were ready to pick it up. He'd tie it up and lay it on a stack along the driveway there, with your name written on the tag on the other side from where the price was.

Once you had your tree on the pile, you could go back to parties and shopping and whatever else you wanted to do most of the month of December. Our visit to Santa was always on December 8, because at our Catholic grammar school, that was a holiday for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. You'd go to church in the morning, and by lunchtime you'd be on Santa's lap in Bamberger's. You could put the tree out of your mind. You wouldn't have to go back for it until you were ready for it.

Our folks never waited until Christmas Eve to brings ours home, but there were quite a few December 20-somethings. The lights and ornaments would come out of the basement, and up onto the tree they'd go. We'd have our three Christmas albums cranked up: Mitch Miller, Andy Williams, and that other one.

We used tinsel liberally. In those days, it was made of tin or aluminum foil, cut into long, thin strips. Supposed to represent icicles, I guess. Some people swore that they threw the stuff on the tree, but that always looked like heck. At our house, you placed the tinsel on the branches ever so carefully, just a few strands at a time, until they were just so.

It was all fairly idyllic, except for one year. We got our tree home from Whitey's, set it up in the stand, got a little water on the base, and after a few minutes noticed an odor.

A familiar odor.

A badly familiar odor.

One of the cats at Whitey's had decided, sometime in the month of December, that he needed to mark his turf.

I'm sure we all waited a while to see if it would subside. Maybe sprayed a little room deodorizer around. But come on, people, this was some potent stuff, produced by a danged Down Neck Newark alley cat. Few smells on the planet are meaner. After some intense consultation with the other grownups in our crowded four-plex, our folks decided that the tree had to go, and they'd have to see what kind of deal could be worked out with Whitey the next day. I can't imagine that swear words were not said.

As I recall, there ensued some debate around the house as to whether Whitey was at fault for our problem. Did the sale come with an implied promise that the tree would be cat-pee-free? Did we assume that risk, as we knew how the trees would be stored? Would it matter if it was a cat that wasn't even Whitey's? Did Whitey even have a cat? (I think he had a German shepherd.) Was this an unavoidable act of God? Nowadays there might be a lawsuit over such matters, but back then people lived in uneasy peace with life's little insults all the time.

Now normally, we kids would always be invited along to Whitey's to pick out, and pick up, our tree, but we stayed home for that particular return visit. Whitey was understanding and apologetic, but not surprisingly, all he had left at that point was a scraggly, small old thing that nobody else had wanted. Not only had we lost a day of tree-trimming opportunity, but now we also had the lamest tree on the block.

Of course, we made do.

Early in the '60s, mass-marketed artificial trees showed up. Lights got smaller and cooler. I remember one year when our uncle upstairs even invested in one of those all-white tin trees that you set a lighted color wheel in front of so that it changed colors. It was the latest thing, in those days. But it was a long time before we would say goodbye to Whitey's lot. We always did well down there.

Except for that one year.

UPDATE, 1/29/08, 4:25 p.m.: An update here.

Comments (17)

Well written.

So familiar.

Thanks for the memories.

Great stuff, Jack. I remember Whitey and the Chrstmas trees well. (I seem to recall that Whitey would offer a shot of "warmer upper" to some of the regulars.)

Do you remember the year the same uncle who did the tin tree with rotating light bought a real tree and had it spray painted turquoise blue?

He was always cutting edge.

He was always cutting edge.

To put it mildly.

A wonderful, well-told story.

I can relate to your comment about a pecking order of sorts among WW II vets. One of my uncles served in the Navy and spent most of his time on land. He never came anywhere close to seeing hostile action. My other uncle was in the Merchant Marines and had two ships torpedoed out from under him. My Merchant Marine uncle was always jealous of my Navy uncle, because my Navy uncle received VA benefits and a lot more respect. It wasn't until about ten years ago that MM folks were provided with veterans' benefits.

I have a CD of the "other one." It's pretty good, but the classic Bing Crosby "Merry Christmas" album is still my very favorite.

Nice story Jack!
My wife is from East Orange and Vern her father, God rest his soul, bought many a tree from Whitey.
Merry Christmas, hope I am off the baned list soon!

good news! bubble lights are available again, AND UL approved.

i got a set a fred meyers. sadly, about 1/2 of them don't "bubble". give the chinese another year or two to perfect them....

Great story. When we were kids, we couldn't afford a "bought" tree. We went into the local woods and topped a 30-40 foot Douglas
fir. (Or we slipped into the Frank estate and made a midnight requisition.) Incidentally, we occasionally took the bus to downtown and shopped at the Fifth Avenue Fred Meyer market. That was before folks added an "s" to Meyer.

sadly, about 1/2 of them don't "bubble". give the chinese another year or two to perfect them....

Don't lick the paint on them.

Christmas 1936 North Side, Pittsburgh, Pa

I was six and along with my 8 year old brother and 2 uncles, we picked up our Christmas tree in the vacant lot between Von Arx Bakery and Andy's Butcher Shop with Schauers Saloon at the back. I don't remember the price, but with bread at 3 cents a loaf, what could it have been? As we had no car, we carried it about a half mile, up a 30 degree slope cobblestone road in a foot of snow. No traffic to worry about, of course.
After reaching our house, we had to go about 50 steps to get to the porch. It took a while to get it cleaned up and dry enough to bring inside. It filled almost half the living room, and with my mother, brother, 2 uncles and grandparents, it was really crowded, warm from heat and happiness. We didn't have many ornaments and only one string of big bulb lights. For the top there was an old metal star that my grandmother had brought from Austria. There was just enough tinsel to give appearance of icicles! We had a very Merry Christmas!

One of my uncles was in the Normandy invasion.

Our friend Doug the Mountain Climber informs us that his bubble lights are UL approved, and that he and his family have been enjoying theirs for 25 years. He includes this photo. Looks like Sigmund Freud's Christmas tree.

Anyway, the early '80s version he's got is a big improvement from the late '50s version. The ones we had were made out of metal and glass -- "better living through chemistry" had not advanced us into the plastic age.

I believe the old tinsel strips, the ones that hang straight down, were lead. The newer, plastic foil ones just don't hang like an icicle would.

"Looks like Sigmund Freud's Christmas tree."

Sometimes a tree is just a tree ...

All I remember was the Oregon ones, but there was family and Christmas before that.

We'd pile in the pickup and soon be in the woods, pull over someplace and just 'pick' one. Like picking an apple. Complaining the while how cold the snow was, so don't let your boots get soaked through.

That was pretty much it, (the 'presents' part didn't quite match it in splendor, if you get my drift). Some years we spent two nights in an on-going decorating 'party,' making Art. Always the same ornaments but new (metal) icicles. The bubble lights, one strand, were a special part as far back as I can remember, early '50s, and somehow those lights and a couple dozen one-of-a-kind glass ornaments, fell to my keepsake in the family, and bubbled and dangled delighting my own kids as late as '93, I'd say. I've still got them boxed somewhere, in the garage, I just don't have the kids anymore.

This year could be the best, and the worst. Good news first: this week, near a midnight, a sad angel's phone voice requested my help decorating. We unpacked a small plastic tree-in-a-box, lights included and already strung, then added blue globes and frosted white snowflakes, darkened the room and gazed wistful. How silently, how silently, the wonderous gift is given. It was all in the doing and who shared in it done, and not really much what we did.

And bad: This week came time for a haircut. Which put me in a long-ago chair in a new-fangled strip-mall already going to seed, me the only non-veteran of some glory days, grandly told, parsimoniously pensioned ... in the wink of a young girl's eye on the covers of unopened Playboy's. As your drapecloth was taken, you were handed a pistol, with pellets to plink at the ceiling, where fifty glass ornaments hanging by ribbons had three with a free haircut in them. You shot 'til you got one and shattered that sucker, glass shards in shiny bright colors mixed with clumps of grey hair on the floor. I shot mine through the neck so the globe fell intact like the 'ball drop' on New Year's Eve, and it smashed and a dollar laid there ... for a tip.

Merry Christmas Everyone...

Jimbo sent me -- that was superb; very nicely written. Merry Christmas, Jack.

Hi Jack from your former neighbor Down Neck,

Thanks for posting the story about buying a Christmas tree from my dad - here's a few comments and corrections:

My father's real first name was Felix, but no one called him that. His nickname, "Whitey", was based on his very blond hair he had when he was younger. His main source of income was his job as a truck driver for Igoe Brothers in Newark,NJ. He was a member of the Teamsters and used to haul steel.

Like many depression-era vets, he also had many side-jobs, including light moving, erecting cyclone fences, scrap hauling and selling just about anything, including vegetables, watches, ladies nylons, toys, and other gift-type items. he only worked down at the farmer's market to supplement his income. In fact, by the end of the 1960's, our family controlled the truck-unloading concession with a group of farmers at the market. God help the person who tried to muscle in on "our" farmers. The two main seasonal enterprises were selling Easter Flowers and Christmas trees, with his brother-in-law, John Zatorski (my Godfather), as his partner.

Every November we first erected the wooden frame down the length of our driveway before the ground froze too hard. Then we would drive to the railroad siding on Orange Street, north of downtown Newark, to buy the trees wholesale right out of a railroad box car. They would be stacked inside the boxcar tied-up 3-5 trees per bundle; frozen stiff as a board with snow and ice mixed in from their trip from Canada.

Everyone from the neighborhood bought tress from us. We also made the giant wreaths that appeared on the causeway over Ferry Street between the buildings at the Ballantine Brewery 3 blocks away from home (the best smell in the Ironbound)and we supplied their big trees they set up in the executive offices and lobby. We had other corporate customers, and, of course, the local churches were all supplied by us, as was the American Legion Post 408 on Cortland Place - the alley behind our respective houses.

It was very much a family enterprise. Selling Christmas trees and Easter Flowers were my first jobs. I still use some of the business skills I learned at the age of 11. And, there was no better way to get into the holiday spirit. my dad always kept 3 things handy in the garage during Christmas tree season - smoked white fish, a box of Golden Delicious apples and huge gallon jugs of homemade wine an Italian friend of my dad's used to make. We would snack all day on these goodies. I made great tips tying up trees and securing them to cars. I would use the cash to go to the movies playing in Downtown Newark at the Paramount, The RKO Proctor, Loews, the Adams and the Branford Theaters and shop for model kits at the bazillion stores available in Newark.

We were definitely not cat people. Our German Shepard, Smokey, patroled the yard at night. For some reason, no one stole our trees. Smokey would have extracted too high a price - better to negotiate with the humans. I do not remember the pee story, but it's a good one! Like your family, we did not put up our own tree until a few days before Christmas - sometimes as late as Christmas Eve.

Although I live just across the border in Pennsylvania, I still go back to Newark to meet college buddies and tour the old 'hood. I just visited last week and the place has changed alot. When were growing up, the street was tree-lined. Most have died or have been removed by the owners, mostly Portuguese and Brazilian now. They have a tendancy to pave over the small lawns in the backyard, too, forming compounds with high walls and concrete plazas - no flowers or greenery desired. You would have a problem recognizing my house. it was bought by a contractor who added onto the house using at least 4 different styles of architecture and finish. The front porch has been replaced with a huge white brick porch topped off with Iberian-style wrought-iron decorative grating. The addition on the back of the house is finished in red brick!? Security grates appear on the windows right up to the third floor attic. It looks like a house on steroids. he may be a contractor but he has no taste in architecture or home finshing. It looks as though he used whatever he had left from his various contractor jobs.:)

Hawkins Street school is pretty much the same with some newer add-on buildings crowding the main schoolyard where we used to play paddle-ball and basketball.

Hayes Park East Pool, on the other hand, could have served as a set in the recent movie, "Legend". Derelict and graffitti covered, piles of leaves and other detritus fill the Olympic pool and the baby pool. You might recall that the pool has been closed since contaminatiion with Agent Orange (from the Diamond Shamrock chemical plant) precluded it from ever being used again - the clean-up being too costly.

Thanks for posting your Christmas tree memories. maybe I'll send some photos of the old neighborhood in a couple of days

Warmest regards from another Down Necker

Mike Dobrzelecki

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