All through high school and college, I worked at a garden nursery in Saginaw. The owner was a burly Irishman, tough but fair, who expected a day’s work for a day’s wages. Fortunately, I was a hard worker and rarely had to worry about his wrath.
As most of you know, garden nurseries transform into winter wonderlands this time of year, but shortly after that, though, they go into retail hibernation until spring. During November and December, the outside part of the nursery was where you went to find garland, wreaths, grave blankets, and of course, Christmas trees.
My sales expertise was primarily artificial Christmas trees and ornaments/lights, but on occasion I would be needed outside in the tree lot to help out. This was the case on Christmas Eve of that year.
The nursery closed at 7:00 p.m. but by early-afternoon, the place was empty, most shoppers having gone home or doing last-minute, emergency shopping at whatever department stores were still open.
I would wander back and forth between the sales floor inside and the tree lot outside, helping the very occasional customer who rushed in to buy a last string of lights or garland, and checking to see if anybody was in need of a live Christmas tree.
But mostly, I would chat with the cashiers who had had the similar misfortune of being scheduled to work on Christmas Eve at a garden nursery that chose to stay open far later than they needed.
A few minutes before closing, a family of four walked in and proceeded directly to the tree lot. I followed them out, introduced myself and set about helping them find the perfect Christmas tree.
Understandably, the more expensive, large trees were still available, the smaller and more affordable trees having sold earlier in the season. I tried steering them to the more expensive trees obviously – the commission was higher – but they kept looking at a few, scraggly, misshapen trees that paled in comparison to the one on the Charlie Brown Christmas special.
They were priced at $5, a bargain even in those days. The father took me aside, and asked if a discount was available, given the state of the tree and the late time. It was then that I noticed the poor condition of his clothes, and those on his wife and children. They were poor and likely couldn’t afford very much at all for their tree.
I looked at my watch, saw the time, and told the man to back his car up to the locked gate that separated the tree and parking lots. Minutes later, I heaved the tree over the fence. The man caught the tree, stashed it in his trunk, and drove off.
I turned around to go back into the store and found the owner standing in the doorway. He asked me what had just happened. I told him the whole story, and finished with saying that in two minutes, when the store closed, that tree’s value would have gone from whatever that family could have afforded to zero.
Instead of an understanding smile or nod of the head, he ripped me apart, screaming about profits, and sales, and how it wasn’t my place to give away his property.
In retrospect, he was right, but being a teen, I took a different approach, and screamed right back about poverty, compassion, and doing the right thing. I took five dollars out of my pocket and shoved it in his hand, telling him “Merry *** Christmas”. Use your imagination.
I went home, had a great Christmas, and showed up early on the morning of the 26th, to help get ready for the annual after-Christmas sale…although I really wasn’t sure I even had a job. The moment I went to clock in, I found a small envelope stapled to my timecard. Inside was a ten-dollar bill from the owner.