Beneath the railroad bridge that spans Broad Street just north of Glenwood, I was waiting for a Christmas tree, and so I was waiting for Christmas. Christmas doesn’t start until I have the tree.
For musicians, December is not a good time to get ready for Christmas. In our house — current population: three — we’re holding at five choirs and eight instrumental ensembles, with December performances, rehearsals, holiday parties, sudden Christmas gigs, more rehearsals, driving, last-minute arranging, composing, part copying, extra church music, and directing, all crescendoing to Christmas Eve. On top of work.
The question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” is likely to be met with a stare.
No, I am not ever ready for Christmas. Lights — and not too many — are put up way after the neighbors’. Gifts are bought in the nick of time. It usually isn’t until the third Sunday of Advent that I get the tree. Last year we were sliding into week four when, on the way home from one event or another and with an hour free, I saw my chance. I stopped at the horse pasture not far from us which every December transforms into a tree lot.
The pasture was bare. I stared blankly. I drove a mile to Young’s Market. They'd had trees a few days before, but as I drove up, I said, “No, no, no,” to the now-treeless parking lot.
Even Whole Foods had tidied up the grounds devoted to spruces and firs and moved on. Plastic-wrapped bundles of premium firewood squatted there, mocking my tardiness.
I was not joyful. But driving into town the next day on Broad, I noticed what I had long seen but ignored: Christmas trees for sale at the train bridge over Broad at Lindley. I was up on it before I could pull over, but remembered the other stop. When I arrived at Glenwood, I pulled into the right-hand-turn lane and put on the flashers.
There were trees, dozens of them, stacked on the sidewalk, leaning against the retaining wall. A shack made of crazy-quilt plywood nestled under the bridge, just like at Lindley.
“How late are you open tonight?” I asked the man, fairly young, who emerged from the shack into the morning cold.
“I’m here all night,” he said. “Don’t you worry, we’re here 24 hours, right through Christmas morning.”
I told him I was happy to see him open, and the one further up. “My uncle runs both of these,” he answered.
“At Lindley, at the other bridge?”
“Yeah, me or somebody, we’re always here.”
I returned at about 8:30 that night, U-turning into a spot behind a minivan. The young man was there, helping a lady.
Walking to the trees, I saw no prices. I lifted the first one I came to away from the others, spun it once, and leaned it back. It was fine. I always buy the first or second one I touch, always. I have never seen a bad one.
The man was taking a tree to the lady’s car. “Find one?” he asked.
“How much for this?” I pointed.
“Twenty-five, but,” and he stopped as if he was really considering, “for you, 20.”
I nodded and waited.
Someone jogged across Broad toward us, ahead of a green-light-released wave of traffic. “Where you been?” asked the young man.
“Over there,” said the second. Older, small and hard, he hooked a thumb back across Broad. “I was over there.” Over there is Speedway gas and Home Gallery Furniture & Bedding. On the furniture building are the words: “Joe Frazier’s Gym.”
“Sweep up some,” the boss said. He was curt but not unkind.
The older man asked me, “You being helped?”
“He’s got me already, thanks,” I said. He seemed to forget about sweeping. We looked across Broad Street.
“So that’s Joe Frazier’s Gym,” I said.
“I knew Joe. Knew everybody there.”
“I fought some. I was pretty good, too, but I gave it up. I didn’t like gettin’ hit. My son, he’s really good, better than me.”
“Your son trained there?”
“No, he learned in prison. He’s good. Got reach, and he uses it.”
It was hard to tell with heavy coats on, but I said, “You look like you got some reach, too.”
“Yeah, for my size, I’m five-six.” He looked at me. “You’re what, five-eight, nine?”
“I’m six foot.” Actually I’m a half-inch over that, but it seemed aggrandizing to mention it.
“Six foot?” His voice raised, his eyebrows lifted, the corners of his mouth dropped. He looked me over. If he was expecting me to say something else, I didn’t.
“Must be the shoes,” he shrugged. I laughed at the incomprehensible joke.
In five minutes my tree was tied to the roof rack, bottom branches lopped, a slice cut from the trunk to open up fresh wood. The helper hovered. With his gloved hand he wiped off the already clean back window of the car. I handed him a couple bucks and wished him a merry Christmas, extending my hand. I wasn’t wearing gloves. He removed his glove and we shook. “Merry Christmas, now,” he said.
I paid the young man. He went for the broom, and something occurred to me. “So, when are you ready for Christmas?”
“Me?” He stopped and thought. “I’m always ready for Christmas.”
I waved and walked to the car. He started sweeping. As I turned the key, the helper was looking across the street at the furniture store. I waited for the traffic to clear, and then I was ready. I made a U-turn and drove up Broad with my Christmas tree.