Working for the man (in the red suit)

...and other jobs of Christmas Past

What got to me was one little boy who kept asking me questions: "Do you have kids, Snowball? What do you like to eat? Where do you live?" And as I went back to the bathroom for the last time, "Will you come home with me? I'll take really good care of you!"

I'll bet he would have, too. --Cecile Cloutier


The Elderly People Handed Me a Chainsaw and the Keys to a Faded Red Tractor

Having lived in Los Angeles my entire life, where phrases like "windchill factor" and "windshield defrost" hardly register to sleeveless Sunset Boulevard shoppers, my winters were overcast at worst. But last December, through a series of capricious decisions, I found myself in the city of Rochester, New York, meandering through 50 acres of pines in a 10-degree hell as I assisted scores of flanneled families in finding their ideal Christmas tree.

I had never heard of a Christmas-tree farm before moving to Rochester. The idea of people trekking around a frost-bitten forest to cut down their very own Douglas Fir seemed inane, if not insane. When I arrived I discovered the grounds were owned by an elderly couple, who promptly handed me a chainsaw and the keys to a faded red tractor, rusted the color of tobacco juice. Along with two sunken-eyed, equally bewildered trainees, I was forced to go out and pre-cut a few hundred trees so that when customers showed up, they could finish the job with a few chops.

The first day the rain fell like flesh-piercing thumbtacks. After a few loops, the tractor dug ruts in the mud, which I mistook to be a good thing until the third day when the grooves froze solid. Every hour, as I chauffeured trusting men and women between trees, it took a small miracle to avoid skidding out and plunging head-on into the hillside. I drove the same loop every day, dropping off and picking up Bobby Knight look-a-likes with their high-decibeled wives, hoisting their prized trees into the attached flatbed and tying them down with extra-strength twine. Tips were appreciated but rare in appearance. Sometimes a smiley-faced, bashful boy would hand me a dollar as his mom urged him onward. I made sure to deposit it in my piggy bank alongside my tooth-fairy money.

For lunch I looked forward to what was allegedly chicken soup but more realistically what my bosses soaked their dentures in. "Sandwiches" consisted of bread, bologna, and bread. And best of all, I was forced to wear an orange bib and cap, similar to an elementary-school crossing guard, so as not to be mistaken for a rabid moose or ferocious grizzly bear. Instead of postponing hunting season, it was our responsibility to evade the men with guns. Every half hour a huge BOOM would shake snow from the branches and instinctively cause my knees to buckle, my chin to tuck, and my arms to rise up as if I were being pummeled by Mike Tyson. To this day the sound of a car backfiring triggers thoughts of tasteless broth, razorblade winds, and crisp diesel gasoline. --Eric Bromberg


A Pint Bottle of Peppermint Schnapps Was My Emergency Anti-Freeze

After 23 years in the Caribbean, I look back with fondness on life in Minnesota, something hard to describe to islanders who think a "cold snap" is around 65 Fahrenheit.

My worst winter job was a pre-Christmas stint in a vacant lot in Bloomington alongside 494, selling Christmas trees. I did it for two weeks, but it seemed more like two years. Let me try to describe the experience.

A car pulls into the lot. My cohort doesn't stir; it's my turn to leave the warm shelter and attend to the customer. A woman gets out and I put on my salesman smile and greet her. Her husband, being a smart guy, sits in the car with the kids, engine running.

"How about this one?" I ask hopefully.

"Too short, we need a taller one."

"No problem" I say. "This one, then."

"Nope, too skinny."

This one? Has a bare spot.

This one? Looks funny.

Continuing this procedure, we look at every single tree on the lot, at which point yours truly has lost: (1) his interest in selling a tree; (2) his patience; (3) his feeling in his fingers and toes.

The good news is that she is freezing too, so she heads back to the car to warm up. The bad news is that it is her husband's turn to come out and continue the quest for the Perfect Tree. Unlike his wife, he doesn't look at every tree, but still wants to explore the entire lot. At this point, my smile has become a frozen grimace and I step behind a stack of trees for a furtive slug from a pint bottle of Peppermint Schnapps, an emergency anti-freeze for survival purposes.

But now dad is cold, so their tag team switches once again and mom comes out for another tour. At this point, we plod behind, beaten into submission.

"What exactly are you looking for, lady?" I ask through gritted teeth.

"We'd just like a full, perfect tree.... these all have something wrong with them."

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