Monday, December 12, 2011

The Scent of Pine Reminds me of Capitalism

When I leave work at night, and it’s dark and cold and the roads are icy, I think of Christmas.

The headlights twinkle like stars against the frozen ground, and when I stop at a light and look in my rear view mirror, I see the crystallized exhaust glowing in the headlights of the people behind me. It’s beautiful. It’s almost Christmas.

When I have to shout to be heard over the blaring Christmas music in a coffee shop, and I get this strange urge to strangle something fuzzy, and I want to throw things and make a scene, I also feel myself filling with the holiday spirit. Christmas!

I love tinsel embedded in my clothing, and the sparkly poops I get to pull out of the cat box because the cats just WON’T LEAVE IT ALONE. Even the cat shit is festive in December.

But most of all, it is walking into the local grocery store, past the rows of fresh cut (dead) trees. Their sap (tree blood) is the epitome of Christmas cheer and love to me. The smell of pine is different here than it is in the mountains. Here, it mingles with fried chicken and bakery treats, and wet asphalt, and exhaust, and those over-scented cinnamon pine cones. Even the incessant bell ringing changes the smell, I swear. It gives it a metallic flavor.

I find myself smiling.

When I was in high school, I got a job making Christmas wreaths.

It was a temporary job in a warehouse, but I thought it would be perfect because I could set my own hours. We weren’t paid by the hour, but by the clip.

OK, picture this… it is a wreath base. It is made out of painted green metal wires. Every four inches or so, is a crossbeam of more metal running perpendicular. They are four, maybe five inches long and slightly curved.

To make a wreath, you strip branches off of a tree that has been trucked down from the mountains. It is  covered in snow and sap, and everything you wear here is going to have sap stains before the month is out, but you have to wear your good coat because the warehouse is unheated and icy cold. The floor is cement, and after about an hour, your feet will start to get numb even though you wore your thickest boots.

You strip out a handful of branches between eight and ten inches long, and you hold them in a little bundle. You will have scratches on your hands and arms, even through your coat, and you will develop a fear of getting your eyeball poked out after getting scratches and jabs in your face on a regular basis. This fear will haunt you for the rest of your life, and require you to wear safety glasses when hiking in anything other than perfect brightness.

Next, you place your little pile of pine boughs inside the crosspiece, or “clip” as they call it in the industry, and hammer it closed.

Congratulations! You have just earned twelve cents (minus the cost of the wreath base of course)! Only fifteen more and you will have a wreath, and you can have it added to your pay sheet (there is no payment for partial wreaths)!

I worked at the Christmas wreath place every weekend, and one or two week days a week after school. We were paid weekly, and I faithfully deposited my checks into my savings account. Only one of those checks was greater than $50.

When I calculated it out, I made about three dollars and fifty cents an hour. This was a bit less than minimum wage (which was $4.25 at the time), but I found it impossible to work an hour in a row without stopping for a few minutes to get my hands thawed. In the evenings, I would run my hands under warm water when I got home to loosen the muscles. My jeans would be wet and stiff, and the skin on my thighs numb and pale. Over the course of the evening after work, my legs would slowly thaw, first tingling like they had fallen asleep and then turning hot and red and angry.  After a while, they were chapped all the time.

I was one of the only teenagers working there. Almost everyone else was in their thirties or older. I felt sad for the ones that were obviously trying to make a temporary living making wreaths. There were a couple of family groups there, too that would make dozens of wreaths every hour with their team work, earning extra cash for the holidays, I guess. I would be annoyed with them because they would strip the trees so fast I would get stuck waiting around for a new one to be brought over. Time is money, people!

After a while, the sap felt almost embedded in my skin, and I would smell it in my sweat during PE class.

I worked there for about a month, and made a total of $192. I spent maybe a third of that on gloves, boots, and gas to get there.

I learned that rubbing alcohol will take sap off your skin in a pinch, and that you can be far colder than you think before you are in danger of freezing to death, and that fat gets cold way faster than muscle on your body.

I also learned that no matter what you think minimum wage is, your boss will find ways to pay you less, but sometimes there is nothing you can do about it.

Contrary to what you might think, this is not a bad memory. I made holiday cheer that year.

I will admit, however, that I have a hard time paying over twenty dollars for a fresh wreath when I know how little it cost to make.

Seeing those wreaths in front of the store reminds me every year that it’s time. Get out the booze and hot cocoa, break out the cheesy movies, and unpack the tree. It’s Christmas time!

25 comments:

MakingSpace said...

Wow - I haven't bought a fresh wreath (my plastic one is about to get blown off my front door with recent freakish winds where I live). Now I know if I spend twenty bucks on it, very very very little will go to the person who made the wreath.

I must say, captivating description, I felt like I was there and now I think I need to go run my hands under warm water...

hoodyhoo said...

your pine-scent memory is kinda like mine for coffee beans -- linked to MY wage-slave job working at a place that sold fresh ground beans. The oils in which will eat the skin off your hands faster than a zombie in the KFC parking lot.

Stephanie said...

This is such a great memoir-y description of a crappy teenaged job! I felt like I was right there next to you. I'll think of you every time I catch a whiff of pine.

Keith said...

You know that the wreaths now come from China, and those people would kill to be getting paid as well as you were.

I am almost in the mood for Love Actually. Soon.

Tim said...

What d'ya know, I guess those experiences really do build character, after all.

So, home improvement stores sell safety glasses that double as sunglasses, and they can often be gotten pretty cheaply. These probably don't have the UV protection of a real pair of sunglasses, but I see my eyes getting poked out of my head as more of a threat than getting a tumors on them. And nobody even needs to know.

KK and UK said...

Ha! I did a couple years after you, but they wouldn't let me make wreaths. Instead, I made the pine sheets that go over coffins for funerals and the pine "swabs" you put on graves at Christmas. Merry Xmas, Death! And yes, it was damn cold in there. I worked every day and made $102.

Angie said...

I love the smell of a fresh wreath or fresh garland. Now I feel horrible about buying that wreath from my son's Christmas fundraiser at church. You know those pasty white corn fed Methodist kids aren't in the wreath warehouse making them!

:D Merry Christmas!

Leauxra said...

Making Space: I'm not saying it isn't worth it, but yeah. I am reminded now and again what goes into making things.

hoodyhoo: Oh, wow, yes. Coffee bean oil will melt plastic. Also, "...will eat the skin off your hands faster than a zombie in the KFC parking lot" is pure genius. You should write a book.

Stephanie: I was worried I was being too wordy writing this, but decided to just go with it because I didn't want to come up with anything else. Now I'm glad I shared it.

Keith: Love Actually, Scrooged, and Bad Santa are the staples around the Leauxra household. I haven't watched any of them yet. Eek.

The local grocery store tries to source locally... also, I think the shipping for the pine (and their lack of staying power) means that most of wreaths in the area are fairly local. I am curious, though, and I'll have to go check them out...

Tim: Wait, did you work in the wreath place, too? Or did you just go hiking at night and imagine what it would be like for your eyeball to get poked out by a stray branch?

I ride my bike and hike in the dark with safety glasses, although I was thinking about getting some non-prescription hipster glasses because I am just that cool.

KK and UK: Merry Xmas Death! HAH! I thought you had the cushy decorating job... but you made stuff for dead people! Very holiday spirit.

Angie: Meh, no reason to punish the fundraiser. Just write angry letters demanding to know about the wreath labor practices... Anonymously, of course.

wagthedad said...

This is really interesting, because the scent of pine makes ME think of home, i.e. the United States.

So capitalism.

Right?

Leauxra said...

wagthedad: Oh. OH. So... no dead trees in the living room in Austria? I never thought about it before, but I am pretty sure that Christmas wouldn't be the same without the pagan capitalistic American trappings... PLEASE tell me that the Austrians replaced that bit of awesome with something better...?

thesacredandtheprofane said...

First- "even the cat shit is festive" made me laugh out loud.

Second- your comment about fat getting colder than muscles explains so much about why I am cold all. the. time.

Third- I admire your ability to work with pines without getting hives. By the end of the first day, I would have had red bumps everywhere. Which is why we have a fake tree. *sigh*

Finally- awesome story. I could smell the grocery store pine just as you described it, including the metallic smell from the red kettle folks. Thank you for sharing.

Leauxra said...

thesacredandtheprofane: I'm not hanging it (cat shit) on the tree or anything, but it is SO SPARKLY. Um. Sorry. That was gross.

I get hives from grass, which has always made that "laying in a field" pretty uncomfortable for me, so I understand the feeling.

And THANK YOU, for the awesome amazing compliment. I have all these memoir type stories that I have been hesitant to post because they are so long... I think I'll keep it up for December, though. People seem to like them.

thoughtsappear said...

It cracks me up when I see tinsel in the cat box. Here I was thinking Esme was being a Scrooge, but no. She just celebrates in her own way.

Leauxra said...

Thoughtsy: Esme is TOTALLY celebrating.

Apparently, Jazz cat wanted to add some color, so he chewed and ate some festive ribbon while I wasn't looking last night.

Jen said...

My mom used the same fake wreath every year and would spray it with pine air freshener. . .that memory is still showing up in my therapy.

mistyslaws said...

I would never been able to do that job. I would have been covered in itchy red bumps. I can barely put up a tree!!

I did work in a very small kiosk at a swim club when I was a teen. In that very small kiosk was a very large cotton candy maker. By the end of the day, I was so covered and coated in sugar from all of it flying around in the air to make that shit that I was practically a candy cane. It was not festive. It was disgusting. To this day, I can't eat that shit. Shudder.

Leauxra said...

Jen: I keep thinking that it would smell like Pine Sol. I would be in therapy over that, too!

mistylaws: I am surprised by how many people are allergic to pine needles!

I've always wondered about those cotton candy places... Were you ever tempted to just stick your head inside?

Sandra said...

I will never look at a wreath the same way again. And yet, I want one now.
I did giggle when I read your title. It's brilliant!

Leauxra said...

Sandra: I went to the local grocery store, and yes, they are the same wreath bases that I used.

I think my titles are getting better. It's almost more important than content!

mistyslaws said...

As to: head inside vat of scalding hot sugar coated air? Um, no. But by the end of the day I was so coated with sugar, it was practically like I had. If anyone were to lick me or my clothing, they would have gotten a massive sugar high. It was dreadful.

Leauxra said...

mistylaws: Um. I think you have convinced me that it isn't a good idea. But it just sounded like an AWESOME idea to have cotton candy instead of hair for some reason.

I have a lot of bad ideas.

Love said...

L- this "memoir," type of story is awesome. I think you should write a book of all these memoirs of yours, because it's NOT too detailed at all, it's simply delicious. The descriptions activate all my senses and it makes me sad, happy and amused all at the same time-- how do you beat that?

Love said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Love said...

Fudge. I forgot to check the "e-mail me follow up comments," box again.

Post tops NSW  said...

I love it......awsome