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.