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“H e’s a Southern gentleman, but he’s eccentric. I don’t know much about his past,” says Dorsie Fyffe, over the phone from his car in Texas. “But you can tell he probably did some theater, maybe played some banjo. Whatever he did before he did this, it probably wasn’t what we consider normal.” Fyffe is describing his former boss, Jimmy Coan, the Christmas tree king of Austin. Forget Coan’s past, I’m pretty sure most people wouldn’t consider his current line of work all that normal, either. Selling Christmas trees ranks up there with running a fireworks stand or owning a corndog truck at the state fair in terms of oddball seasonal employment. These are not Boy Scout or church group tree lots, cheerfully volunteering their time. We are talking guys who purchase truckloads, sometimes train car loads, of pine trees in order to earn a living every holiday season. The more I speak to the men performing this holliest, jolliest of jobs, the more I discover a bumper crop of fellas like Coan – some even further off the normalcy chart. Each year, roadside tree lots seem to materialize out of thin air, just as we throw
the turkey bones in the trash and wipe pumpkin pie stains from our shirts. We depend on these guys to deliver holiday spirit in conifer form, but we never look in the rearview mirror and think: isn’t it kind of odd that these fellas have a spare month to stand in the freezing cold and tie trees to car roofs? “Your normal 9-to-5, khaki-pants-wearing guy isn’t going to put up with that. After two days, he’s leaving,” says Fyffe, who once lived in an RV on a tree lot for six weeks. “It just takes somebody with ... a certain willingness to put up with things that are rough. It’s kind of like Survivor with Christmas trees.” The biggest way it’s like Survivor is that Christmas tree selling is exclusive. Like sending off your tape to the reality show’s producers in hopes of a callback, one does not just saunter up to a neighborhood tree lot and offer his biceps and enthusiasm. I have naïve plans of asking to donate some free labor in order to learn the tree-trimming trade from the inside. That dream dies on every lot I visit when its proprietor begins regarding me like all the others: with an impatient suspicion usually reserved for dinner guests who don’t take the hint to leave.
By Patrick Wensink
American Consequences | 67
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