Our First Christmas Tree (Portland, South Portland: sales, apartments, mattresses)
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This is not a poem but it is a true story. I hope everyone enjoys it.
Our First Christmas Tree
My late ex-wife, Paulette, her two boys, Derrick and David, and I got our first apartment together on Halloween 1981. The apartment was on the top floor of a three story walkup flat on Salem Street in Portland, Maine. No one could ever accuse those apartments of grace or elegance. They were built on the cheap, and it showed. However, they were spacious and well laid out, and, in this case, inexpensive too.
Salem Street is just south of Danforth Street, one of the parallel streets that run the length of the peninsula Portland is situated on, and between Brackett Street on the east and Clarke Street on the west. Salem Street is also just above what was once the Million Dollar Bridge (now torn down and replaced) that connected Portland and South Portland across the Fore River. The bridge was called that because it cost one million dollars to build in 1905. Our apartment overlooked the inner harbor and the Ferryville section of South Portland across the river. The area had been the Polish ghetto in the late 19th and early 20th century. By the time Paulette, her sons, and I moved in, the Poles had long moved out. The street had a slummy, run down feel to it. Even today Portland’s restoration has barely touched the area.
When we moved in, we had next to nothing and not much of that. We certainly didn’t have enough to fill a large five-room apartment. We had managed to scrape together enough for three mattresses for the boys and us, as well as some kitchen equipment, but that was it. If we ever reached the poverty level, it would be an improvement. I am resourceful though. Shortly after we moved in, Portland, had its annual “Heavy Items Trash Week.” People could put anything they wanted to get rid of out on the curb, and the city picked it up, that is after what seemed like half the population had picked through it. It was a funky sort of tradition. You put out your junk, and if it was good enough, somebody else would cart it away. People who would never be caught dumpster diving were seen rummaging through the various piles on the curb. This was especially true in the wealthy sections of town like the West End. I cornered a friend with a pick up truck, and we went out looking. I found a kitchen table and some chairs, a couple of dresser drawers, a couch and two bed frames for the boy’s beds. Goodwill and yard sales would supply the rest. It was a beginning.
During most of 1981, I had been self employed as a mime or clown and part of a Comedie Del Arts troupe doing street theater with some friends. I also rented myself out to businesses and events as a promotional stunt or to advertise things, as well as doing private parties and painting faces at festivals. I had been a clown, a bear, a turkey, and a Cookie Monster among other things. I was also featured in several different television commercials promoting the 350th anniversary of the founding of Portland. Years later, I still had strangers come up to me and say that they remembered me as the clown. Considering how bad the economy was at the time, I actually did quite well. I charged $6.00 an hour and up and got it. With the approach of winter, however clowning around had tapered off, and real work was scarce. Paulette was working as a waitress, and we received Aid to Dependent Families and Children (AFDC) and Food Stamps for the boys. Times were tight, but we didn’t care; we were in love. Things would work themselves out.
As the holidays approached, I became anxious. I wanted everything to be perfect. With the help of Paulette’s mother, Mrs. Shepard, we managed to get gifts for Derrick and David. I personally scraped together enough money to buy what I hoped would become our engagement ring and a lot of old Christmas decorations at Goodwill. Still, I was not happy. It was almost a week before Christmas, and we didn’t have a tree or any spare money to get one. I was complaining about this one night to my friend Ken, when he suggested that we could decorate the bay windows. I said , “No, I wanted a tree.” Ken then said, “Well fine, then let’s just go out to Stroudwater Marsh and cut one.” Not bad, I thought so we made plans to go out to Stroudwater on Friday the18th of December and cut ourselves a tree.
On Tuesday the 15th, Mrs. Shepard announced that she was taking Derrick and David for the weekend, so Paulette and I could have some time together over my birthday, which was on Saturday the 19th. Mrs. Shepard said she would pick the boys up right after school on the 18th. Paulette had to work that day, but she would get off about 5:00 pm and was off the rest of the weekend. Cool. I didn’t tell Paulette about my and Ken’s plan because I wanted it to be a surprise.
Of course, it snowed the night of the 17th, and by morning there were two feet of snow on the ground, and school was canceled. Mrs. Shepard called up and said, she couldn’t get her car out but if I put the boys on the bus, she would meet them. I got Paulette off to work and, after the usual hassles, managed to glue the boys together and walked them to the bus stop. After I saw them off, I went over to Ken’s apartment.
Ken met me at the door with a small Boy Scout hatchet in one hand and his dog Maxwell at his side. Ken is a slight fellow, about five foot nine inches or so with shocking red hair and Coke bottle glasses. Maxwell was an elderly Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier and a gem of a dog. After some delay, we caught a bus out to the airport. Halfway there, the road crosses the juncture of the Stroudwater and Fore Rivers. We got off the bus and, headed up the railroad tracks that paralleled the Stroudwater River into the hills above the marsh. Most of the Stroudwater marsh is part of the Fore River Wildlife Sanctuary. It is about sixty acres of tidal marsh with several trails and footbridges crisscrossing it. It is a very pretty area, and in certain places you would be hard pressed to tell it was in the middle of a city and less than a mile from the airport. It looks quite wild and, has a fifty-foot waterfall in the middle of it. Most of the trails follow the old Casco to Sebago canal line. Its ancient, two-hundred-year-old walls and locks can still be seen poking out of the tidal marsh and tall grasses.
Walking up the railroad tracks was difficult because of the freshly fallen snow, but we were young, stubborn, and on a mission. Max was bouncing around happily all over the place. Slipping and sliding, we finally left the tracks and climbed up into the woods. After some tramping around, we found our tree. Charlie Brown would have been proud. It was about eight feet tall and rather lopsided, but to our eyes it was perfect. It was now just a matter of cutting the tree down and getting it home. The tree didn’t seem that big, so we thought a few minutes hacking on it with the ax and we would be on our way. I bent down, and swung that little ax as hard as I could. The hatchet bounced off the trunk, and I swear my arm vibrated. There was barely a scratch on the tree trunk, so I swung again. After my arm stopped throbbing I checked the blade and it was pretty darn dull. Ken shrugged and said, “What? It’s all I had.” We started arguing about what to do next, until we started getting cold. I wanted to find a smaller tree, and Ken insisted we could cut this one down. Finally, Ken pulled out a pocket knife and started whittling away on the trunk. After a few minutes, I hacked on it some with the ax and then Ken whittled some more. Lumberjacks we were not. It didn’t take long, but it seemed like it. Max kept himself amused by chasing squirrels and generally getting in the way. Eventually we whittled the tree down enough and we started rocking it back and forth until the trunk snapped. The tree fell over onto Ken, knocking him into the snow. After some thrashing about and cursing, Ken managed to get out from under the tree, got up, and brushed himself off. Muttering and grumbling, we started dragging the tree home by its mangled trunk.
Ken and I got to the bus stop and waited. When the bus finally pulled up, the driver took one look at Ken, me, Maxwell, and the tree and took off without saying a word. We looked at each other, shrugged and started off back down the railroad tracks towards town dragging, the tree behind us. After a mile or so, we noticed it was getting a bit thread bare, so we started carrying it. Ken and I fussed at each other the whole way about whose crazy idea this was. At last we crawled up Danforth Street, then down to Salem Street, and home. It had taken about three hours, but we were beat. Now, all we had to do was get it upstairs.
I unlocked the front door, and we started shoving the tree into the hall, but the turn up the stairs was too sharp. We couldn’t negotiate it. The more we tried the more needles came off. Finally, I said, “to hell with this!” and we pulled the tree back out onto the porch. By now Ken and I were thoroughly disgusted with the whole project. The only one who was enjoying himself was Maxwell. I thought a moment and, then went over and knocked on my elderly neighbor’s door, and asked if we could borrow some rope. I knew the old man was convinced that I was crazy and all my friends were weirdo's. Usually, he wouldn’t talk to me at all, but I guess Christmas brought out the best in him. Grumbling, he gave me about forty feet of rope and slammed the door in my face. Ken and I dragged the tree to the back of the house, and then I went upstairs and threw the rope off our back porch. Ken tied the rope to the tree trunk, then came upstairs, and helped me haul it up the three stories to our apartment. At last we pulled it over the railing onto the porch and we shoved it through the back doors into the apartment. After a few more hassles, we got the tree in its stand and up. In the end it was two inches short of the ceiling. If I had to mess with it anymore, I would have cried. I got Ken and me a couple of beers. We sat down, and then let out a sigh of relief. After relaxing a few minutes, we decided we had got this far, so, we might as well finish the job. I got out the decorations, and we did the tree up. I must say it didn’t look too bad after we were all done. True, it took up half the living room, and it was still lopsided and rather thread bare in places, but it was our tree. Ken and I were scratched, bruised, frost bitten, covered in needles, and exhausted, but we were proud as Hell about it.
It was a couple hours before Paulette got home, so we cleaned up the place as best we could. Then after unplugging the Christmas lights, I wrote Paulette a note, and then walked Ken and Max back home. After I left Ken, I decided to go to get Paulette and me a bottle of wine. I walked intown to Paul’s Food Center, a rather shabby grocery in the middle of downtown. When I got there, I noticed several local winos huddled in a doorway across the street. I didn’t pay them any mind. I bought an okay bottle of wine and some things for dinner. As I left, I heard singing. A street kid with a beat up guitar had joined the winos, and they were singing Christmas carols. The guitar was out of tune and so were the winos, but that didn’t stop them. They croaked, moaned, and rasped out their songs. True, their version of Silent Night would have scared the angels away, but they put their hearts into it. A few people were standing around them. Some were laughing, but others were applauding and tossing money. I was amused, so, on a whim, I went back into the grocery and bought the largest bottle of “decent” rot gut I could. I took it out and gave it to them, wishing them a Merry Christmas as I did. They were surprised, but thanked me heartily and even offered to share it. I declined and then headed home feeling tired but very pleased with myself.
When I got home, the tree lights were on. I knew I had turned them off. I shouted for Paulette but got no answer and then heard giggling coming from the bedroom. I went in and found her lying on the bed waiting for me. With help from a girlfriend, she’d bundled herself up in gift wrapping paper with a big bow and a birthday card taped to her belly. When I unwrapped her, I discovered a new red silk teddy she was wearing. Oh my! Later, I fixed us dinner, and we drank the wine by the glow of the tree, as I told her about my and Ken’s adventure. Later we made love again and fell asleep by the light of the tree. I’ve since had better trees and more prosperous Christmases, but never one so full of fond memories.
Last edited by Wayne StClair; 09-13-2007 at 08:56 PM..
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