As we circled the Christmas tree lot in my green Honda Civic looking for a parking spot, I surveyed the surroundings: Row upon row of Christmas trees; a few rough-looking men helping customers; families and couples milling the aisles; a gray, stormy sky. The day before, my cousin Michelle had seen the help-wanted sign posted on the lot’s fence and had inquired within. Given our current job situations (unemployed) and the fact that we could use some extra dough for Christmas shopping, six dollars per hour under the table sounded pretty good to us.
Working at a Christmas tree lot sounded fun, and I was excited about the idea. I pictured myself roaming down the pine-scented aisles, cheerfully helping happy families pick out just the right tree for their cozy homes. I would be the nice, accommodating young college coed they’d tip generously.
After parking the car, we entered the lot and found the fella who appeared to be in charge.
“You’re hiring for six dollars an hour, right?” Michelle confirmed.
“Yep,” our potential employer answered. “But you gotta work for it, and let me tell you, it ain’t easy.”
Michelle and I looked at each other and shrugged-how hard could it be, really? We were about to find out.
We shook hands with our new boss, whose name I never got but we referred to as Commando, and were officially hired. Commando then gave us a tour of the farm. “The Douglas firs are grown up in Washington,” he lectured, as we made our way toward the back of the lot. “About a year ago, they were just a foot high,” he said as he squatted down and held his hand just above the ground. “But now, they’re about eight feet!” he said, standing up again and holding his hand above his head to indicate a tall tree. “We get ‘em shipped down here every year,” Commando continued. “Then there’s them there Noble pines; they’re from Northern California. They’re about 10 feet tall. These ones are more expensive. Here’s the price list,” he added, handing us each a photocopy of the prices.
“Now, what are your girls’ names?”
“I’m Jessica, and this is Michelle,” I answered.
“Got it. Now let’s get you two started.” He turned to me. “Melissa, why don’t you load up a cart with trees from the last truckload we got in.”
“Okay, but my name’s Jessica.”
“Right, Jessica. Now,” he said, turning to Michelle, “Melissa, I want you to help Ronnie out with piling up the trees that need to be cut.”
“That’s right, Michelle, you get started with the trees over here, and,” he said turning back to me, “we’ll get a cart for you, Melissa.”
“Now, Melissa,” he said as we walked, “there are two types of trees-the Douglas fir and the Noble pine. The Douglas firs are grown up in Washington. About this time last year, they were just a foot tall. Now, they’re eight feet!” He continued, “They’re not as expensive as the Noble pines, which are from Northern California. Those ones are 10 feet tall. You remember that. Here’s a price list for ya,” he said, handing me the same photocopy as the one I already had in my back pocket. I searched his face for a trace of recollection that he had just done this five minutes ago. Was this a joke? If it was, Commando sure wasn’t laughing.
We reached the cart at the back of the farm; my job was to transfer the baled trees from a large truck onto the cart, and then haul the cart to where Michelle and Ronnie were working. After transferring about two trees, I realized I desperately needed some gloves because the skin on my hands was not tough enough for the pine needles and bark.
I reported to Commando, who gave me some yellow, double extra large men’s gloves that were soaking wet and full of stickers. They literally hung off of my wrists like damp socks. After about five minutes of hauling trees, I discovered that Christmas trees are heavy. Extremely heavy.
After preparing my first cartload of trees, I clumsily pushed the cart to Michelle and Ronnie’s work area. Michelle was busy hauling trees from a large pile onto a chopping block, where Ronnie, a middle-aged man with a huge gut, a gray beard like ZZ Top, and a cough that would make any smoker quit cold turkey, sat on a stool and leveled the trunks with a chainsaw.
“Hey, Michelle, do you want to see if we can help customers?” I asked.
“Just : a minute,” she panted. “Only 15 : more trees : to go.”
“No stopping for talking, Melissa!” Commando yelled.
I made my way down to Commando. I didn’t come here to lift trees! I came to help customers and wander down pine-scented aisles and be cute and get big tips. “The trees are too heavy,” I told him. “Do you think I could help out with the customers for a while?”
Commando looked at me long and hard. “Well, let me tell you something,” he said. “You gotta be good to deal with the customers. Look at Harold over there,” he said, gesturing to a disheveled man slouched in the corner with no teeth and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. “Now, he’s our top guy. He’s been here for years. Can’t nobody sell a tree better than old Harry! I’ll tell you what. You help Melissa out with the trees up there for a while, and then maybe we’ll let you have a shot with the customers,” he said.
I trudged back up the hill to help Michelle. When I reached the top, she was still hauling trees to the chopping block, where Ronnie barked out orders amid his hacking. Michelle and I started in on another pile of about 50 trees, and lifted and carried until our backs were ready to break. By this time, it had started to rain. And when it rains the trees get wet; wet trees, not surprisingly, are even heavier than dry ones. We were soaked, were covered in mud, and could barely lift up our arms. But we finished the pile, and were utterly exhausted as we made our way down the hill to Commando.
“Can we help the customers now?” we asked, trying not to sound too wiped out.
“OK, girls,” Commando said. “Don’t let them wander too long by themselves. Answer any questions, and be friendly. Now, go sell them trees!”
I meandered through the aisles looking for my first family to help. I approached a couple. “Hello there! How can I help you?” I asked, as if I knew something, anything at all, about Christmas trees.
“Yes, we’re looking for a tree that will not dry out by Christmas,” the woman said with a slight Russian accent. “Our living room is cold, and a breeze comes through often in the daytime. What type of tree would you recommend we buy?”
Her question threw me for a loop. I just wanted to be helpful and cute. Well, let’s see: Douglas firs are from Washington, where it’s rainy. The Noble pines are from Northern California, where it’s : hmm : drier? I think Washington is colder than Northern California, but then again, there are those rainforests, so maybe it’s really hot there and I just always thought Washington was cold since it was by Canada and Oregon, which are cold : or are Canada and Oregon warm and just have a cold reputation, or are they humid and cold? Is that even possible?
“Oh, well then, you need the Noble pine,” I said, opting for the more expensive choice when it was clear my reasoning had taken a backseat. “Noble pines are definitely the best for cold, breezy locations.”
“Let’s see that one,” the woman ordered, pointing to the biggest tree in sight.
“Okay,” I said. I knew I needed to reach the trunk in order to pull the tree out, but it looked a long way through all of those branches. I thrust my arms into the tree, but before my hands were halfway to the trunk, needles were poking into my eyes. I stepped back, sized up the tree again, and went in for a second attempt, this time with my eyes closed. I leaned in with my arms outstretched until I lost my balance and fell into the tree. My fall aided my reaching capabilities, and I found that I had the trunk between my man gloves. Grasping it firmly, I moved backward, awkwardly scooting, leaning, twisting, and turning until the tree was somewhat separate from the rest.
“There!” I panted proudly, sweat dripping from my forehead, needles sticking out from my matted hair.
The woman glanced at the tree for a millisecond before she sniffed, “I don’t think so,” and continued moving down the aisles. Each request to “see that one” required me to repeat the same cumbersome process of pulling the darn thing out, only to hear the evil Christmas tree queen decline my offering.
Finally the couple decided on a 10-foot, $120 tree. I dragged it down the hill through the mud to the tree baler; if I was hauling it wrong, I really didn’t care. I just wanted that tree strapped to their Jaguar and out of my sight.
Through the pouring rain I heard Commando yelling, “Good job, Melissa! Way to sell that there tree! Now get out there and do it again!”
I went to look for Michelle and found her hiding behind a Douglas fir. It seemed her experience hadn’t been a pine-scented delight of selling trees to nice folks for their cozy homes either. We were drenched, exhausted, and ready to leave. It had been three hours-three hours of hell earning us $18 each. Suddenly, $18 felt a whole heck of a lot more valuable than it had that morning. I had worked my butt off for that money. But when Commando handed me the three fives and three ones, it didn’t feel like that much. Three fives and three ones is certainly not equal to three back-breaking, freezing hours of hauling trees across mud in the rain.
“So will we be seein’ you two tomorrow?” Commando asked. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding.
We left the tree lot and I thought about how I would spend each one of my $18 with the utmost thought and care. As we neared the car, I noticed a concerned expression on Michelle’s face. I followed her gaze to the white piece of paper pinned under the windshield wiper. Michelle and I looked at each other, each having realized just what our combined earnings of $36 was actually equivalent to-the fine for a parking ticket.