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Random musings on a writer's life & times, with occasional input from acquaintances

 

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

 
I stole a Christmas tree once.

I was 23, working in the Chicago bureau of a national newspaper, living with my wife and 2-year-old daughter in an apartment in the western suburbs.

My wife and I were both kids from Oregon, a couple of rubes come to the big city to seek our fortune. We settled in the suburbs because neither of us, accustomed to towering trees and misty mountains, could imagine raising a child in the concrete canyons of downtown Chicago.

Living in Glen Ellyn, though, lengthened my workday by three hours. I rode a commuter train 90 minutes to get to work, and another 90 minutes to get home. Riding that train to and from downtown Chicago was one of many uncomfortable aspects of my existence. I carried a leather briefcase, a gift received from my wife the previous Christmas, but as a junior reporter I had no business papers to put in it, so I stuck my lunch inside. One day I opened it to put away a copy of the Sun-Times I’d been reading as the train arrived at the downtown station. An apple fell out on the floor, rolled half the length of the car and thumped against the front wall. I snapped my briefcase shut and, pretending the fugitive fruit wasn’t mine, fled by the rear door.

That kind of thing happened to me all the time in Chicago. I didn’t understand about tipping barbers, so I received hard looks and muttered insults when I got my hair cut. I walked a lot because I couldn’t figure out how to hail a taxi. Initially I ate lunch in restaurants, but after a few encounters with the big-city practice of placing complete strangers who arrive alone at a single table the size of a pie plate to dine in excruciating silence, I retreated to the company lunchroom overlooking an alley (and my apple-in-the-briefcase routine). One winter day I took Chicago’s version of the subway, an elevated (or El) train, to the ghetto-dominated south side for an interview with a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle campus and overshot my stop. When I finally climbed off the train, I was on a platform fifty feet in the air over some of the meanest streets in America. The brick buildings were soot-stained and dilapidated, many with boarded-over windows. Trash littered the pavement and sidewalks. At the foot of a set of metal stairs, between me and more stairs leading up to the northbound platform I needed to reach in order to board a train back to the college and, ultimately, downtown, stood a rusty oil barrel filled with burning scrap wood and surrounded by half a dozen large black men in tattered clothing. They were warming their hands over the fire. Maybe these men posed no threat to me, but as I assessed the situation at the time -- me being a 23-year-old white bumpkin wearing a tie and carrying a briefcase, they being lifeworn urban black men in elbows-out coats hovering over a burning oil drum in the middle of a work day, this being the socially volatile late-1960s -- I felt my dignity and perhaps my health were at serious risk. I must have paced that southbound platform for fifteen minutes before summoning the courage to descend, scurry past the black men and race up the other set of stairs. I escaped northward on the next train without incident, but those fifteen minutes on that southbound platform were among the longest of my life.

Although my newspaper work didn’t pay a whole lot of money, my wife, Janet, didn’t have a job. She had worked from the time we married while I finished college, so we were experimenting with a different routine. She played stay-at-home Mom while I played work-a-day Dad. We agreed it was good for Dawn, even though it left us on the edge of broke.

Janet had spent her whole life in Oregon until I dragged her off to Wisconsin for a year of graduate school before we moved on to Chicago, and I had been an Oregonian for seven years. As our second Christmas away from family and the rainy north woods approached, the idea of establishing a beachhead of familiarity in our urban Midwest surroundings seemed more and more important. What better way than to acquire a nice Christmas tree to grace our apartment?

We noticed that a Christmas tree sales lot had opened in the asphalt sea that fronted the large shopping center opposite our building, beyond a six-lane boulevard. The proprietors had erected a canvas tent next to a fenced-in assortment of evergreen trees.

After dinner one evening, Dawn went to stay with a neighbor lady while Janet and I shopped for a tree. It was around 8 o’clock on a bitterly cold mid-December night as we darted across the wide street, dodging cars and trucks. The knife-edged wind off Lake Michigan that Chicagoans call “The Hawk” stung our eyes and numbed our noses. A few patches of dirty snow, left by a storm a few days earlier, littered the gutters. We hurried across the dark parking lot and ducked into the tent, which was lit by a single electric bulb hanging from the center pole. To our surprise, we found the place unoccupied. The tent contained a dilapidated card table, a couple of metal folding chairs and half a dozen huge, gorgeous Christmas trees coated with glistening white artificial snow, but no people.

Janet and I stood there a minute, stamping our feet to keep warm, but no sales clerk appeared. Finally, we ventured out a rear door into the fenced storage area, where dozens of green trees lay and leaned in the darkness. We poked around, shifting and lifting trees to get a better idea of how they were shaped. It was difficult to read price tags because the only light came from a streetlamp many yards away, but we could tell buying a really nice tree might be beyond our budget.

We settled on a small spruce near the back fence. It wasn’t as big as we had envisioned and one side seemed a bit flatter than the other, but it looked sort of okay and the price was reasonable. We walked back inside, ready to buy.

Again we found no one in the tent. We waited, hands in our pockets. Our breath made cloudy plumes in the air.

“This is weird,” Janet said. “It’s like they don’t care if they sell the trees.”

I scanned the tent, glanced out the rear door into the fenced storage area. “We could just walk off with any tree we wanted, if we were inclined to.”

Janet laughed. “Which one would you take? The one we picked?”

“Of course not,” I sniffed. “If you’re going to steal a Christmas tree, you might as well steal a good one.”

I went over to the giant trees coated with artificial snow. They were arranged on metal stands against a side wall of the tent. “This one,” I said, pointing to the largest. I knelt and read the price tag hanging off a bottom branch. It said, as I recall, thirty-five dollars.

“We could never afford that,” Janet said after I quoted the price.

I shrugged. “Five-finger discount.”

Janet gazed at the tree. “Dawn would love it,” she said softly.

I grasped the base of the tree and shook it to see if I could easily free it from the stand. I could. “You want it?” I looked up at her and grinned.

She giggled. “That would be evil.” She glanced about. The tent remained empty, except for us. Janet was a good girl from a church-going family. Stealing would not come natural to her. Stealing a Christmas tree would be doubly unnatural.

I, however, am made of baser stuff. “Grab the top,” I said. “If they don’t want to sell these things, they must be giving them away.” I lifted the base of the tree.

We raced out of the tent and careened across the parking lot, the giant white tree an awkward bridge between us, leaving what I feared would amount to a Hansel-and-Gretel-like trail of fake snow. Reaching the street, we paused a few agonizing moments to wait for traffic to clear, peering back over our shoulders for what we were certain would be a pursuing posse. Not a soul showed. We sprinted across the six concrete lanes and ducked into a side entrance of our complex. Back at our one-bedroom apartment, we locked the door and propped the tree against the wall. It dwarfed our living room like an enormous white ghost. But it glistened in the overhead light. It was gorgeous. We began to laugh, hysterical with adrenaline and guilt and delight.

Dawn did truly love that Christmas tree. We decorated it with lots of ornaments, many of them homemade by Dawn and her mom, and slid cheap-but-good gifts under the bottom branches (such as Dudley the giant stuffed dog, which I acquired for Dawn as a premium for subscribing to the Chicago Tribune).

As I look back on that Christmas all these years later, I do so with a piquant mixture of guilt and defiant nostalgia. I am not a thief by inclination and I know taking that tree without paying for it was wrong, legally. But it still seems to have been the right thing to do, somehow, a defiant gesture against a world that had lured us far from home into a strange environment where we had too little money and too large a sense of our own inconsequence.



Tuesday, December 23, 2003

 
Dear Dawn,

For the first time since your death in 1982, I am unable this year to place a gift on your grave. I bought one, a little avant garde Christmas tree with four ornaments that say Dawn, Dad, Merry Christmas and You Are Loved. I even carried the tree with me on a trip to Bend last week, but I didn’t make it to the cemetery. The trip was a hurried, one-night business affair, and the hurry was aggravated by snowy weather. I drove back to Portland with the tree still in its paper wrapping. It decorates my desk as I write this.

I felt bad about not putting a gift on your grave. It seems a 17-year-old girl needs a Christmas gift. But then I read a newspaper story about “the 37-cent gift.” Write a letter to a relative or a friend, the reporter suggested. It’s personal, it shows thought on your part and it only costs the price of a 37-cent stamp.

The story quoted a local magazine editor and essayist, Brian Doyle: “The message of all real letters is ‘I love you.’ The thought is more eloquent than the words.”

I’ve decided to adapt that suggestion. Here’s your Christmas gift -- a letter from Dad. A 37-cent stamp won’t get it to where you are, so I’ll post it on the internet instead. Who knows where things wind up when sent off into the internet ozone? Maybe you’ll be able to read the letter as easily as anyone else.

Christmas always meant a lot to you, I know. I figured that out your very first Christmas, when you were seven months old and I had to erect a barricade of kitchen chairs to deflect your determination to climb the brightly decorated tree. The barricade went up after your first attempted ascent brought the tree crashing down, Star of Bethlehem and all.

Remember that second Christmas, when we lived in Wisconsin? Uncle Bill came to Madison from Michigan State U. to spend the vacation with us. I have a black and white photo of you pedaling a brand new tricycle across the living room with him grinning in the background. I also have a photo of you clutching a doll and screaming your head off in a hissy fit while your mother and Bill laugh, but we won’t go into that.

I have pictures, too, that were taken in Chicago during your third Christmas. You are wearing a white cotton blouse and the green velvet “Christmas skirt” your mom sewed for you. Your eyes are so big and dark. The photos are black and white, but the brown of your eyes isn’t hard to see. In several of the pictures you are wrestling with Dudley, the giant stuffed dog who was your favorite present that year. He came with a green cardboard train engine, and you are helping him embark and debark (appropriate for a dog, huh?). Dudley lives with me now. His gold fur has dimmed and his floppy ears are bedraggled, but he looks pretty good for an old dog of thirty-six .

My first color Christmas pictures date from your fourth one. I have several of you sitting on the kitchen floor with the walking, talking doll you received that year strolling between your feet. That was the midnight Christmas. Remember? I worked at the newspaper office in downtown Minneapolis until 11 p.m. on Christmas eve, then drove the ten snowy miles to our apartment in Bloomington. You were determined to open gifts on Christmas Eve, so your mother let you stay up until I got home. When I came through the door you both were shivering with fright, because some drunk had come knocking a few minutes earlier, asking to use the phone. Your mom turned him away, but both of you were spooked. There’s nothing like a brand new Chatty Cathy doll to drive away scary thoughts, though.

By your fifth Christmas, we were back in Oregon. Grandma Av came to our duplex in Springfield, and so did Uncle Vic. We didn’t have much money in those days, so we were back to black and white film. I have pictures of you assembling a tiny race track for toy cars, with your hair all done up in fancy ringlets.

I go through my boxes of photos and I find, year by year, a record of all your Christmases. The pictures show you changing so much, from the round-cheeked urchin leaning against the chair barricade to the willowy 5-foot-3 young lady you became by your last Christmas, when the only gifts you wanted were clothes, clothes and more clothes.

I wish I had a lot more photos of a lot more Christmases, but I don’t. Your last Christmas was 1981, eight months before you died. This year, as I have each of the last twenty or so, I donated money to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and The Compassionate Friends as Christmas gifts in your name. I tell myself it’s the money I would have spent to buy you a sweater and skirt or, given the fact you’d be a woman in her thirties now, maybe a microwave oven or an electric mixer. I’d rather spend the money on you, for sure.

Well, I guess I better sign off. I have to take your little brother to a Christmas play so he can do a report on it for his high school drama class.

I miss you.

Merry Christmas,
Dad



Monday, December 22, 2003

 
Mr. Black & Blue once again offers advice to the lifelorn.

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DEAR MR. BLACK & BLUE: I am twenty-five years old, intelligent, charming, tall, good-looking, well-dressed and profitably employed. So why can't I score with the opposite sex?

I asked a female friend, and she said: "You scare women your age. They think, 'Oh, wow, the only way this guy would be with me is if I gave him the big commitment. In five years, I'd snap him up. But right now, I just want to have fun.' So they turn to a less attractive guy."

What am I supposed to do? Get ugly tattoos? Dress like a slob? Pretend I forgot how to read?

FRUSTRATED IN FORT WAYNE

DEAR FRUSTRATED: Hire some hookers. It worked for Charlie Sheen. Or find yourself a 40-something mama who's desperate to believe she's still sexy. Think Ashton Kutcher/Demi Moore. If those approaches fail, try scaling down your opinion of yourself. You strike me as a prime horse's ass, and it's possible women see you the same way.

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DEAR MR. BLACK & BLUE: My husband, Geoff, to whom I had been married for twenty-eight years, left our home after initiating an affair with a woman at his office. I was crushed, and our three children and four grandchildren were deeply hurt.

I got a job selling real estate and did the best I could to maintain a decent life for myself and my youngest daughter, who still lives at home. I discovered I have a knack for sales, and have become quite successful in my work. I've even met some new, interesting men through church activities.

Here's the punchline, though: Geoff's lover left him, and he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He is begging me to take him back. Because my family and I have been so badly wounded by his behavior, I am reluctant. What do you think?

WARY IN WAUWATOSA

DEAR WARY: Ah, cut the old guy some slack. If he has Alzheimer's, he probably doesn't even REMEMBER running off with the other woman.





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