Friday, December 7, 2012

The Envy of the Neighborhood

Photo my Dmitry G via Wikimedia Commons

There is something almost sexual about washing a Prius. I wish I could tell you why, but every time I wash it, I feel this afterglow and the urge to roll over and take a nap. Maybe I wash it more than I should, but my reduced carbon footprint should cover a little extra water, right? So it was of course during Tuesday's washing that the salesman came to call.

He drove a late seventies Mercury, once red, now faded to a salmon color. The overall shape of the car was as if a kindergartner had designed it: a rectangle with tiny circles for wheels. Whatever the hubcaps had looked like was lost to time, only brown lug nuts showed now. The front was a wall of headlights and grille, the rest of the body bulky and slow-looking.

The salesman was no better. Somewhere in his forties, paunchy, and moving with all the energy and grace of a sick water buffalo. He hefted a small suitcase that looked like alligator skin; tufts of white poked out from holes and thin spots. His brown corduroy jacket with dark elbow patches floated over green pants as if the man were an inverted Christmas tree. He wore a homberg hat, and actual homberg, as if he were Winston Churchill or an olde tyme banker. And his shoes, his shoes! The only thing new on him, construction boots. This shambling figure approached the driveway, and I had nowhere to run.

“Hello,” he said, “do you like Christmas?”


His head jerked back like I had just taken a swing at him. “You don't? Why's that?”

“Christmas is just cover for mass consumerism. It soothes the guilt of running up credit card debt, all so junior can have the latest gee-jaw to keep him quiet while mom and dad watch their sitcoms on TV.”

“Oh. So you think Christmas has lost its meaning?”

“If you mean that the holiday invented by a pope to undermine the Druids, sure.”

His face brightened.

“Yes sir,” he said, “many people feel as you do. Today's Christmas is nothing like what it ought to be, nothing like what they remember growing up. Would you like to know the reason?”

Because people suppress memories of whiskey-scented beatings? Because kids never have to shell out their own money for gifts? Claymation? Norman Rockwell? What was this guy's angle?

“I'm sure you're going to tell me,” I said.

Bibles. I bet he's selling bibles.

He cast a glance over his shoulder and leaned forward. “Christmas lights.”

I blinked; he nodded.

“Why even in your own neighborhood,” he said, “LEDs up one side and down the other.”

“LEDs,” I said.

“You call that light they give off a glow? It's as cold as Jack Frost's mother-in-law.” He laughed.

I didn't.

“You save a lot in electricity with the LEDs,” I said.

He peered around me at the Prius.

“That's why you got that thing?”

There was something unwholesome about his look. I took a step forward and blocked his view.

“It's environmentally responsible,” I said.

“Bah, that's just marketing talk. The best thing for the earth is to drive a classic like mine, not use more of the Earth's stuff to make a slightly less dirty car. No, re-use has gotten the short thrift in our society sir. Which brings me here to today.

“I thought it was Christmas and the evils of LED lights.”

“And that's just where it starts! There are the inflatable displays, just plug in a cord, and poof – instant nativity scene. Just hope that baby Jesus doesn't spring a leak. The pre-lit trees and deer, the dangly flashing icicle lights, motorized penguins on ice skates, they all pitifully try to make up for their lack of originality and warmth with gaudiness and so-called convenience.”

I kind of liked the penguins. “So what's your solution?”

He smiled and opened his case. Inside jewel-toned lightbulbs in faded cardboard boxes sat beside foil reflectors stacked like cupcake paper. Cloth-wrapped wires ended in chunky two-pronged plugs. A light-up angel sat next to a plug-in Santa whose beard had yellowed.

“You're selling used Christmas lights?” I said.

“Antiques. Dina-Lites with the Noma safety plugs. The old Mazda series, and the Osram Party lights.”

He plucked out a bulb the size of my pinky, the red knurled glass twinkling in the sun.

“Incandescents!” he said, “These are the secret to Christmas. The beautiful glow that comes only from zig-zagy tungsten filaments. Just warm enough to melt any covering snow and shine to the world.”

“I don't think so.”

“How about this?” He held up what looked like a popcorn ball made of blue glass.

“The snowball light. Where are these in the stores today?”

I shrugged.

“Or these,” he held up a green and red onion-shaped bulb with a tube of green fluid emerging from the top. “Bubble lights!”

“I thought they still sold those.”

“Pale imitations. They are club soda, this is Champagne.”

“I don't know, I like kitsch as much as the next guy, but I'm not going to decorate my house with power-guzzling fire hazards.”

“That's the beauty, sir. A little goes a long way. The amount of electricity you'd use is a paltry measure. And I assure you, not one of my products has ever caught fire.”

They did seem to have a certain retro factor that might play well. Maybe I could use some during a Mad Men-themed dinner party.

“Do you sell anything to control them remotely? My buddy has an Android app that can make his lights blink in time to any song you want.”

“No,” he said, confused.

“Pity.” Kip was always showing me what his phone could do that mine couldn't. I had hoped to shut him up.

“Surely you can see past all that novelty and show that, like a fine wine, newer is not always better?”

I did like wine.

“What would you recommend for a small display?”

He smiled and brought out a stylized star outlined in gold foil. It reminded me of Las Vegas.

“From the 1950s, I give you the Lawson model 400.”

“Seems kind of plain.”

“The foil will reflect the light of the blue, red and green lights here in the center, see?”


“And it will sparkle and shimmer in the slightest breeze. It's lost techniques like this that will make you the envy of the neighborhood.”

He said it with a knowing smile, and it hit me in the stomach. A piece of 1950s crap would make the envy of the neighborhood? My Prius was the envy of the neighborhood. My shiny, modern, Earth-saving vehicle was not going to be upstaged by a light with some tin foil around the edges.

“I don't know about the star,” I said. “I see you have Santa and candy canes and angels. How about a Jesus light?”

“I don't have one of those, sir.”

“It just seems like since we're supposed to be celebrating his birthday and all, there should be a light-up Jesus.”

“I'm sorry, they don't make those. They've never made those.”

“Well, that's what I want.”

“I could perhaps locate a nativity scene in the warehouse,” he said. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a notebook and pencil.

“No, not a nativity scene, a string of Jesus bulbs to light my front porch. If you can't provide that, good day, sir.”

The salesman's smile slipped and for a moment, I could see his fatigue. I couldn't feel sorry for him, it was his own fault for selling second-hand junk so worthless people wouldn't even buy it for Christmas. He carefully latched his case and lifted his hat.

“Merry Christmas, sir.”

He slammed the jalopy's door as he got in, loud enough to set off the alarm of the car parked across the street. I turned back to my Prius.

“Now baby, where were we?”


  1. Another great depressing Christmas story. Now can I top that one next week?

  2. A good one, Wade. Love all the descriptions. Reminds me of my childhood Christmas. :)