Thursday, October 16, 2008

Light Reading

I rang the bell. Mrs Hochberg opened the door and was just about to herald my arrival to her sons Alan and Gary when I began my well-rehearsed sales pitch.

As I've mentioned before, I took three years of high school German, the first two under the tutelage of a tiny Hispanic lady named Frau Gomez, whom we all secretly referred to as the "Brown Frau" whenever she wasn't within earshot. (Well, I'm sure there were some good boys and girls who were respectful at all times, but I never met them.) But I digress. As I was saying, despite the fact that in El Paso it would have made much more sense to study Spanish, I took German as my foreign language.

The greatest thing about taking German (other than learning how to talk like ones vanquished former enemy) was that it qualified you to join the German Club -- an elite organization whose primary purpose was to raise money during the Fall semester so we could blow it all on a big banquet at the Edelweiss Restaurant during the Spring semester. The banquet was supposedly an outreach to German soldiers who were going through air defense training at Fort Bliss, but the truth is more like: "We invited some Krauts to justify squandering our loot."

For social retards like me the German Club was a great outreach program -- or perhaps I should say it was an excellent outreach program to social retards to like me. In a club composed of a dozen kids even someone with my crippling shyness could fit in -- and it was a place where even I (given enough tenure) could advance to elective office. That's right, through some back-door dealing I managed to get myself elected club parliamentarian. (Politics can be a dirty business.)

In the 1960s El Paso was the biggest small town in America. No doubt it still is, but the El Paso of my youth had all the urban sophistication of a Mexican village. In this quiet border city, American and Mexican cultures commingled -- sometimes charmingly, sometimes awkwardly. And so it was amid this odd confluence of cultures that we, the members of the Coronado High School German Club, chose as our Fall fund-raising event the manufacture and sale of Christmas luminarias.

For those who may have never heard of luminarias, a luminaria is just a paper lunch sack filled with an inch or two of sand and a votive candle stuck in it. Luminarias trace their origin to the Spanish Missionary tradition of Las Posadas, the reinactment of Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. Each year on Christmas Eve in towns around those colonial Spanish missions, a young couple (playing the part of Joseph and Mary) would go from house to house asking for a place to stay. Of course, all of the towns-folk would turn them away. But then (as Mary and Joseph moved on to the next door) the inn-keepers who'd just refused them lodging would transform into shepherds and begin following them on their quest. And as they followed, they carried little paper lanterns -- luminarias.

The throng of lights would grow until finally, with the people of the village looking on, at the last house (typically the home of the village patron) the home-owner would invite the couple in. The host would then call to the shepherds and invite them to join in celebrating the miracle of the Christ-child's birth. The gathered villagers would put down their luminarias along the roadside and walkways to mark the way to where the the Child can be found.

It's a lovely tradition and an even more beautiful sight -- the flickering lanterns casting their eerie orange glow on the ground. If you haven't seen an entire neighborhood in the evening, illuminated only by luminarias lining the curbs and walkways, then you've missed quite a sight. Here's a photo of our house in El Paso decked out for Christmas. But long exposures like this don't capture the magical random dance of the lights.

As I was saying, only in El Paso would a high school German Club decide to raise its operating capital by selling luminarias. We'd set the price at a ridiculously handsome figure of ten cents per luminaria, which was nearly four times our production costs (the most expensive component being the votive candles, which we bought in bulk from a candle factory in Juarez). Our sales pitch was that for a mere dime we'd do everything except light the candles. We'd fold the bags, add the sand and candles, deliver them to your house on Christmas Eve and place them along your walks and curbs in whatever way you wanted them arranged. Then on the day after Christmas, we'd come around to dispose of them for you.

In my heart of hearts I knew we were price gouging, but nonetheless, I set myself a personal objective of selling between 25 and 50 luminarias to each and every house on our block -- a lofty goal when one considers that our block included two Jewish households. Even a dolt like me sensed that asking our Jewish neighbors to pay the Hitler Youth retail prices for Christmas decorations might prove dicey.

I figured I stood the best chance of making a sale to our Hebrew friends if I could tell them, "Everyone else on the block has bought some; I'd hate for your house to be the one that stands out." So after I'd secured buyers from almost every house on the block, I made my slickest sales pitch to Jerry Lowenmensch's mom. She countered my appeal with, "You do know we're Jewish, right?"

I replied, "Sure, so how many Hanukah lights can I put you down for?"

She smiled and said, "I'll take eight. And don't worry, it'll be okay even if you deliver them the week after Hanukah, let's say around December 24th?

I acknowledged that the calendar that particular year (1966) could have been a little more cooperative. Jerry's mom was a peach. (His dad was a thorough schmuck, but that's a different story.)

Suddenly sensing that I must be a pretty decent salesman, I trotted straight down to the Hochbergs' house to ply my charms on Gary's mom. (I knew this would be the big test of my heretofore winning sales technique.)

So ... as Mrs Hochberg eyed me over the top of her bifocals, I yammered on about the the beauty and popularity of these very reasonably priced holiday decorations. I knew Mrs Hochberg to be a stern woman, so I was more than a bit apprehensive and probably set some mongering speed record. Well, it turned out I needn't have worried. As I sprinted to the finish, without any change of expression and without uttering a word, Mrs Hochberg ... closed the door.


Jerry said...

A dime a bag? And you both deliver them, set them up, and take them down?

I wish that I could get that deal today.

We pay the Albuquerque Youth Symphony something like $6 a dozen, but they get delivered in flats of twelve, and we have to put them out and dispose of them.

I guess that the only consolation is the fact that the Symphony will probably put the money to better use than the Coronado Thunderbirds Hitler Youth.

Bag Blog said...

I always hated high school club sales. You got off easy with Mrs. Hockberg.

PrimoDonna said...

Great story! I really like memories from the past. How long did it take to set out all of the candles that you sold?

ShalomSeeker said...

I am so laughing. She closed the door!?! I can't imagine, but it's really funny when you recall it.

I also can't imagine you as shy, but age does have a way of altering our childhood-selves, no?

And thank you for that photo. I haven't seen that house in any form in at least two decades, and I literally gasped as I scrolled down and saw it on the screen. It brings back such wonderful memories... Were you there the Christmas (when I was a child) when it snowed? We roasted marshmallows in your dad's fireplace; Mom drove out to purchase them. It was wonderful... :-)


joyce said...

Now tell about making them with our little boys, and show the old picture over the oven. The fire department frowns on making them around here, but our new porch light reminds me of one with the copper colored punched out star.

and I spotted one typo in the last paragraph.

Bob said...

Dear, thanks for catching the typo (but I was "more tan" back then, just not "more tan a little apprehensive").

No, I'm not sure if we were there when it snowed and you roasted marshmallows in the fireplace -- it wasn't the only time such things happened. James had just been born when your granddad died, so that may have been back when Andy was a baby or toddler.

Thanks. Good stories come from good memories.

Remind me not to come peddling stuff near your place.

If you think about it, inflation has just about done that much damage to the dollar in these past 42 years.

Bou said...

I am laughing hysterically. What a great woman... and its even OK to deliver them a week after Hanukah, Dec 24th.

We used to do luminaries in our neighborhood. I still do sometimes if we're home that year. Our neighbor was a fireman. It used to make him insane. He used to say to me, "I don't care how much sand you put in that bag, you're still putting fire in it..."

Bob said...

Thanks, from an artist like you that's quite a compliment. Glad you enjoyed the story.

I used to tell bedtime stories to my kids when they were little. They especially loved the ones about when I was a little boy, but I soon figured out that morals to those stories were few and far between.

And your fireman neighbor just needed to chill. I'd have had to challenge him to cite a single case of luminarias' actually causing a house fire. I doubt he could do it.

Anonymous said...

I too really enjoyed seeing the picture of your parent's home. Wow I was just thinking about that place today. I do not have a lot of memories there, but the ones I have were good ones. Thanks for sharing this memory.--The wife of the South Seas Flyer

Bob said...

Flyer Wife--
Yeah, that house is filled with good memories and our memories are filled with that house.