photo: Clay Kerrigan
Tales From the End of the Bus Line is a long-distance collaboration between daughter/father Megan and Bill Broughton to collect the many adventures of Bill’s young adulthood in Van Nuys, California. Installments (and photos that should or shouldn’t see the light of day, if we’re lucky) will be penned by the two of them.
My eldest just informed me that this year we would get a tree for Christmas. We did not get one last year, although we had one the year before that (I have a picture of it on my phone). As humans, symbols are important to us, and to people who say that the Christmas tree is not the real symbol of Christmas, having nothing to do with Christ, I would disagree. I point out that originally, (admittedly in a different holiday) it was a symbol of hope, and renewal, and I think Christmas is about a great deal of both of those.
In early December of 1981 Bob decided that the spirit of the season had been commercialized to the point of ridiculousness. Someone had to take a stand, and the mantle of responsibility would have to fall squarely upon his shoulders. Never one to do things by half measures, he and his roommate Dan, another printer, (did we know anyone who was not? Well, bartenders, yeah) started their own Christmas tree business in their rented condo. Answering the telephone with a hearty “Ho, ho, ho, Trees Unlimited, we got what you want!” they did a booming business. The price of the trees guaranteed a fast turn around of merchandise: everything, no matter how big or small, or what variety, cost only ten dollars. With the supermarkets that year charging between $25 and $50 for a tree, and with another mini depression looming, I knew lots of folks who had decided to forego one that year.
I went over to Bob and Dan’s place a couple of weeks before Christmas to buy a tree for Kathy and John. They had spread out a large sheet of plastic over the living room carpeting and there had to have been over 200 trees in the front room of the condo, the place smelled like the densest pine forest you’ve ever been in. It was an eclectic mixture, there were Scotch Pines, Douglas Firs, Norway Spruce, Noble Fir, Frasers, hell you name it and they probably had one, somewhere in the back maybe, let me go look, oh yeah here it is! They did not deliver; you had to come to them.
I had selected a nice Noble Fir that was about seven feet or so, because I knew it would look good in John and Kathy’s living room. The only reason Bob agreed to take it over to them is because he knew they were safe, and also we couldn’t figure out how to tie it securely enough on my Kawasaki. I had visions of me riding up to their place like the Pine Tree guy in the Boston Marathon, but Bob talked me out of it. We loaded it in the back of his truck, which already had a layer of needles in it, and drove over to the west side of the city to their house. After setting it up and having a beer with John, we went back to the condo to find Dan had made quite a few sales in our absence. The place was half empty, which was good business, considering that the only advertising they had was word of mouth. I asked them when they were getting more trees, and they grinned and said probably tonight, since they knew of a few grocery stores that had got new shipments in. Owning a pick-up truck is a mixed blessing – everyone asks your help to move, but it turns out you can handle your own business from one.
They’d wait for the guard to be on the other side of the supermarket, drive in quick and grab the nearest one or two trees, then be off before anyone knew they were there. In all fairness, they never took more than few trees from any one place, and the price they charged was ridiculously low, even for 1981 standards. The stores were charging highly inflated prices and our two mad heroes were not, so it was almost but not quite a public service, since they did profit from it. Towards the end of things some trees got given to folks that didn’t even have ten dollars, so they could at least have a tree for their kids to remember. With all the driving around they had to do, I really wonder if they made much more than gas money, but they did deal in volume, so maybe they made enough to make if worth their while. For years afterwards, John would tease me about getting another hot Christmas tree for them, but this was a one time deal, as by 1982 they had moved on to other things.
Dan would eventually inherit his dad’s printing business, and become a respectable member of society. I was even to work for him part-time many years after this. He ran a good shop, and I remember he was respected and well liked by his employees. I never breathed a word of these events to them; it belonged to a time in the past when reason didn’t really come into play, but the object was to see how far the craziness could stretch before snapping. Eventually most of us run out of the urge to push the limits of insane behavior, although some continued to do so long after they should have quit. What those few who never stop find out in the end are that the limits can push back, and they push mighty hard.
Not in Christmas of 1981 though. There the only limits were how many trees could be loaded into a pick up truck in ten seconds or less, and how many would fit into the living room of a condo, and the number of both of these turned out to be both high and flexible. I don’t know if either of them gained any spiritual insights from their actions. What I do know is that many people that year got a Christmas tree when they thought it wasn’t going to be possible. Lots of kids have memories of their childhood Christmas when their parents got a tree for them, and that memory stays long after the remembering of what little toy you got has vanished. Those people got the Christmas spirit, and in the end, I would think, that was enough.
So I’ve been inadvertently scoping out a lot of Christmas tree lots this season, and have come to the conclusion that the ones at grocery stores are definitely the ones to hit. Some trees are even conveniently pre-wrapped in netting and I can’t imagine it would be much of a hassle to snatch one up and run for it. It seems much more necessary to abscond with a $70 tree than a $25 one. The other trick is to wait until a few days before Christmas when the trees are all at a fixed price, but that’s basically a Charlie Brown fest or else nothing but half-giants from which to choose. We have named this year’s tree “Hagrid” and I still swear it only looked like a 6 footer in the lot. Love is blind.
In the event you do bring home a 9 foot tall tree, let me tell you the key is to not be the one fully in charge of wrestling the damn thing into the stand and getting it to stay straight. That’s what Dads are for. Megans are for sort of helping, toeing saws and clippers away after they’ve been tossed aside for their electric brothers, and also standing directly in the path of falling trees. Someone’s gotta do it.
I can think of few things more absurdly fantastic than a faux-forested living room presided over by West Coast Robin Hoods. Sadly, Dad had no photos to pair with this story (God knows I would love a crinkled Polaroid of pines stacked in some dingy living room). By some truly crazy coincidence, a college friend posted this photo on Instagram just as I was considering staging a documented theft.
10:05 Christmas morning update: Hagrid fell over a half hour ago, was banished to the backyard, and renamed Grawp.