Friday, December 05, 2008

Mr. Mistletoe’s Sundial

If you ever walk along Charlottesville’s University Avenue, you'll go past what's called the Corner. The name is misleading—it’s actually more of a long stretch of restaurants, bookstores, bars, and kitschy little shops between Chancellor and 14th Streets. Or at least it used to be; the restaurants and some of the bars are still around, but a Starbucks replaced one of the old businesses that used to be there, and I’m sure there have been a few other changes as well in the time I’ve been gone. That place still carries a lot of emotional currency for me, though, because of a few weeks every year I’d spend there with my dad, selling mistletoe.

This all happened when I was about five or six years old. My dad was self-employed, and therefore was his own boss when it came to budgeting his time. I’m not sure how the idea came about, or why he settled on mistletoe particularly. He disdained the typical method employed by local Buckingham County natives, which involved shooting the mistletoe off the tree with a .22, as it caused too many berries to fall off and required a gun and the ability to shoot it besides. For those reasons, he had my brother-in-law fix him an eighteen-foot pole with a hook welded onto the end of it. In late November, usually right after Thanksgiving, he’d drive around the county, looking for mistletoe-infested trees in people’s yards. If he found one, he’d knock on the person’s door and ask them if he could climb the tree in their yard and pull the mistletoe down. Most of the people he asked were obliging, though no doubt amused by the idea of a man climbing up a tree for such a purpose. He’d clamber up the tree and I’d hand him the pole, and he’d hook the mistletoe and half-lower, half-drop it onto a tarp below.

We’d gather up as much as we could into giant black trash bags. Once we got it home, we tied the mistletoe—about two or three sprigs at a time—together with ribbon, curled the ends of the ribbon, packed the tied sprigs into Ziploc bags, and put them in the refrigerator to keep them fresh. The day after that, we would pack up the car with an assortment of objects—equipment and gear that started out in a rudimentary, utilitarian fashion and evolved into something much larger and more complex than selling mistletoe would seem to require. At the height of his career as a salesman, my father had a huge sign made of pieces of paperboard that spelled out “MR MISTLETOE” in individual letters, which he suspended between a hook on the outside wall of LittleJohn’s Deli and a streetlamp. He put a sign on a wooden gardening post that said “Mr. Mistletoe” as well, and he made up a box that he decorated carefully with wrapping paper and signs that announced his name, a third time, and “$2”—the price of each bag of three sprigs.

His target demographic on the corner was college students, more specifically college girls. Two bucks was an affordable enough price, and many such girls were so taken with the idea and carried away with the double ecstasy of holiday fever and the end of exams that the shrewdness of his plan became evident rather quickly. College guys were targeted as well, in much the same way as girls; a gift that says—no, demands—“kiss me” is likely to appeal with such a group. The simple genius of his plan would become clearer to me, much later, when I was at William & Mary; no doubt I would have shelled out a few bucks myself, albeit more out of hope than certainty.

At one point, his advertising campaign included making a giant wooden sandwichboard sign that said “Buy Mistletoe from Mr. Mistletoe,” putting it over my shoulders, and having me walk up and down West Main, from the Lucky Seven convenience store way down to the corner of West Main and 14th Street, across the street from where the Orbit bar is now. Mistaking the amused laughter of passers-by for ridicule, I would wear the sign with a prominent blush searing my cheeks, and would dutifully trudge my appointed path as rapidly as was possible while wearing two heavy pieces of board across my back and chest. For this task I was paid a quarter, enough money to play one of the arcade games in the basement of a nearby comic shop and thus ease the heartbreak of the perceived indignity of my ambulatory marketing.

At a certain point in the afternoon, my dad would pack up his stuff into the car and go around peddling his wares to various businesses. Being a computer programmer and a mathematician, his salesman’s plan was stylized and deeply planned out. At my age, I was not entirely curious about where we went, so long as there was the possibility of soda, food, or toys. (However, I did learn, from conversations in the car, that hairdressers were often his best sales.) There were scattered locations all over town where he was guaranteed to sell quite a few bags, just as there were a few locations where he knew that the managers were likely to be unfriendly to him—much in the way Depression-era tramps used to leave symbols on houses as reminders: “Mean dog,” “Nice lady,” “Good food.” He never seemed deterred by rudeness. I suppose, in retrospect, he considered it the other person’s problem, much the way Ronald Reagan once said, when an aide showed him an article harshly criticizing his presidency: “Yeah, I wonder what’s eating that guy?”

I could go on for hours about those few weeks in December: how I explored the gardens on the UVA campus, sitting on the wall of the University park eating hot hamburgers from the White Spot and drinking cream soda, buying my dad a latté every morning (from a coffee shop that no longer exists, sadly). However, something that really sticks in my mind is the way my dad kept time. He would go inside LittleJohn’s and find the times on the hour. Then he’d go outside and use his nail file to make a mark on the knee wall behind his sales table, scratching a line where the shadow of a nearby tree fell on the surface. That way he didn’t have to go inside and check every day—once he had each hourly time, he could tell what time it was based on the shadows across the wall.

I was on the Corner this past winter (right around the time of year my dad would have been selling mistletoe sixteen years ago), shopping at Plan 9 and getting a cup of coffee at the Starbucks that’s up towards Bodo’s. While walking by LittleJohn’s, I paused at the wall. I was sure I could see the etchings in the stone, made by a man living life on his own terms and doing what pleased him; a man who, rather than buying a watch, decided to leave his mark on this world in his own quiet but determined way.

(I'm still flying.)


Anonymous momma said...

Christmas has never quite been the same since then, has it?

Such a busy, hectic time, yet you got to participate in people's hopes for the holiday season.

I found his detailed mistletoe map recently. It's tattered, but I'd like to frame it anyway.

Just one of the many ways he devised to make enough money so he could home school you and still paint during the summer.

We also have the picture of you and him on the Corner selling mistletoe -- the one that the newspaper published, but I think it's buried in storage somewhere.

BTW, one of the things I found attractive about him (besides the fact that he didn't have a TV) is that he never wore a watch. I wonder: do you think that you "inherited" this quality, given that you can't wear one because you make them quit running?

There's a moral buried in that, but I have no idea what it is...

9:08 AM  
Blogger Gryffilion said...

"Time wounds all heels, and if you don't wear a watch it can't wound YOU."

2:12 PM  
Blogger Gryffilion said...

I remember finding that map, by the way. Didn't we find it when Naomi and I were cleaning this summer? Seems to me it was color-coded. We really do need to get it framed and put in his office before it falls apart.

One of the other things that I forgot to mention was that coat he always wore, the brown one repaired with duct tape. It seemed like such an indulgence to me when he upgraded to that forest green one (which I think is still around).

2:14 PM  
Anonymous momma said...

Well, there's one quality you didn't inherit. Though you were indifferent to your "gently used" clothing I got at yard sales (in fact, you preferred them because they were soft), you became very particular as you got older.

I am trying to imagine *you* appearing in public in a down coat with duct tape patches to keep the feathers from falling out.

The green jacket: are you kidding about it still "being around"? He wears it every winter. It's hanging in the hall, fer heaven's sake.

I think the down one *might*still be here, though there have been Discussions as to whether it ought to go.

9:11 PM  

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