American Consequences - December 2017

Gary Jenek does not seem to share Tommy’s sentiments. Jenek comes across as the most normal spruce jockey in town. We speak the next morning as a light winter rain starts falling. He wears a bold red outfit built to withstand a hurricane. He is pink-faced and clean-shaven beneath a checkerboard Elmer Fudd cap. The smell of wet roadway overpowers the trees. Frequently – as we walk and talk down the sidewalk along Christmas Tree Lane, mere feet away from where Tommy Thompson might still be having a tree-induced existential meltdown – Gary smiles and waves and wishes customers a happy holiday. Trees hang from white wooden racks, candy striped with red. They dangle from twine, spinning and swaying in the breeze. As I mentioned, Gary is friendly but still doesn’t give the impression that he has much attention to give a guy like me, who has no intention of buying a needle-shedding bundle of Christmas cheer. Gary began doing this over 30 years ago, so I figure he will have a good handle on the confusing circuitry powering a tree man’s inner system. “It’s a business. I have five children and my wife doesn’t work, so I have to do something else. I mean, it’s a job. Everybody does something.” Gary actually has full-time employment elsewhere. He is currently on vacation. Gary works for the River City Transit Authority and saves up his paid time off every year to sell Christmas trees.

Thompson is busy doing paperwork, so I kill time wandering the lot, sniffing trees, imaging presents beneath each one. I chat with Jim, who has been working here for nearly a decade. I ask why he thinks his boss sells trees. “Oh, probably because his dad started the business in the ‘50s. I don’t think he can let that go.” Finally, I spot Tommy inside a makeshift office – more like an ice fishing shack atop concrete – to ask if we can chat some other day when he isn’t so busy. “I don’t want what you’re selling,” his high and lonesome voice fills the room. My smile drops completely off the map. Where did this sudden distaste come from? Has he learned my wife and I own an artificial tree? I ask Tommy why. “Because I might start wondering myself why I do it,” he says. For a moment it seems like an extremely dry joke, but no, things really have gone south this quickly. He is now the second tannenbaum merchant in a week to freeze me out ... except Tommy’s version of the cold shoulder involves a lot of nervous talking, like some sort of tic. “It’s too personal. I don’t want to get into this with you,” he says. I back off and apologize. I say it’s his choice. Tommy stops and starts a few times, fidgeting with a manual calculator, pulling off the paper receipt. “We’re like the last circus travelling around the country. We’re the only ones left that don’t know when to quit or just give up.”

The Weird and Secretive World of Christmas Tree Salesmen

70 | December 2017

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