Tag Archives: Christmas

The Undertaker

I sat on a wooden box in the shadow of the sales counter and watched The Undertaker as he paced restlessly in front of Mr. Witt’s Liquor Store and as he paused now and again to peer inside the open storefront before he resumed his march. The Undertaker continued the monotony for several more minutes while a number of customers entered the Liquor Store and Market. Many were buying cigarettes and cigars as was fashionable in the 1960’s. Brooklyn Joe, the snooker player, had walked over from the Pool Hall next door to pick up a racing form and a pack of White Owl Cigars. He, and old man Witt, discussed their favorites running at Hollywood Park and were soon joined by three other men. As always, Brooklyn Joe was by far the loudest participant, with every other word taken from the largest storehouse of swear words known to man.

The Undertaker stopped pacing the sidewalk and watched intently at the five men who, engrossed in their conversation, seemed oblivious to everything else. The Undertaker casually strolled through the 15 foot wide opening at the front of the store. He was a tall thin man. I believe he was about the thinnest man I had ever seen and at over six feet likely weighed little more than myself. As always he was attired in black leather wingtip shoes with holes in the bottom, which I knew, from previous observations, he kept patched with cardboard. He always wore the same threadbare black pants (that were several inches too short) with a matching black-tailed coat, which was only buttoned on the colder days, and a black top hat. Today he wore socks that covered the often-bare spot between his shoes and the bottom of his pants. The socks were gray-white and matched his shirt.

The Undertaker walked slowly through the front market portion of the store and stopped occasionally to pick up an item for careful inspection. Always after he turned it over in his hands he would place it back from exactly where he had taken it. He continued these careful inspections for several minutes and slowly worked his way back to the rear of the store where Mr. Witt kept the fine wine and spirits walled off by display cases from the rest of the market.

At the very entrance to the fine liquor area was an old barrel that Mr. Witt had turned into a display table by placing it upside down and adding a smaller wooden bucket in the center. He had several bottles of Thunderbird wine circling the bucket, which bore a hand-drawn sign advertising a price of “50 Cents.”

I watched The Undertaker as he picked up one of the bottles of Thunderbird and turned it over in his hands. He stroked the bottle gently and with his body positioned between the barrel and the men at the front of the store he pretended to place the bottle back on the barrel as he carefully slipped it under his tailcoat.

I continued to watch as he turned and resumed his routine of inspecting various market items as he made his way to the front of the store where he exited even as he still clutched the bottle of wine under his coat.

After he left I stood and walked over to the cash register and interrupted the men’s talk of thoroughbreds.

“Mr. Witt”, I said, “Did you know that that man just stole a bottle of Thunderbird?”

The four customers all laughed.

Mr. Witt smiled and said; “Sammy, I keep those bottles of Thunderbird in the store for him alone. When he has a need he comes in for one. Sometimes, he will actually have a half-dollar or a bag full of pop bottles to give me, but most of the time he is broke. As long as I keep those bottles in stock he never tries to take anything more expensive.”

I was still barely a Cub Scout then and I thought about that incident for a very long time. We are all told that it is wrong to steal and somebody is supposed to be punished. That day I learned a little more about charity, compassion, and what loving one’s brother is really all about – even if it was one of those that many people in our society would seemingly just throw away.

Mr. Witt taught me a lesson that day, nearly fifty years ago, that I soon began to practice along with my new Boy Scout slogan: “Do a good turn daily.” As Taco Bell was across the street from where I grew up it was not uncustomary for me to stop for a Taco, Bell Burger – or similarly inexpensive item, purchase an extra, and leave it on the rail of the dumpster out back. It brought tears to my eyes when I learned that my friends and neighbors had begun doing the same.

And, during this Christmas season, I pray you all experience the joy of doing a good turn daily and blessing your own, as well as, another’s day.



The Undertaker was a real human being that haunted the streets where I grew up for many years. He was a homeless man, who was always attired in the same threadbare clothes, and whose only variation I can remember in his dress, was that on some days he lacked socks. I never once heard him speak, from the first days he arrived when I was still in elementary school, on through his last days, which saw me through high school and into young adulthood.

It was the children of our town that called him The Undertaker, along with other names like The Spook, and The Scarecrow. I don’t believe anyone ever knew what his given name was, where he hailed from, or what the set of circumstances was that took him from a life where he would have dressed like Fred Astaire, to the one where he pulled his meals from the dumpster behind a Taco Bell that was located some sixteen miles due south of Hollywood.

I have a faint memory of a long ago Sunday morning when The Undertaker stood in the entrance of our Pentecostal Holiness Church and listened to the sermon with his top hat in his hand and then, when it was over, fled when invited all the way inside by an usher.

Nobody really knew where he lived but I discovered it by accident one night. As a boy I would often sneak out of my house in the middle of the night and go to where the railroad tracks cut our town askew. On one of those nights, as I sat and watched the trains and constellations, I saw The Undertaker exit a thick growth of shrubbery along side the fences that separated the homes from the tracks, relieve himself on the rails in the moonlight, and then get down upon his hands and knees, and crawl back inside.

When I was young man working full-time and going to college in the evenings I realized that I had not seen him about for a while. I asked around and was told that he had died while asleep in his shrubbery home. One of the neighbors apparently found his body after he missed seeing him for a few days.

The Undertaker became an integral part of my life on that August morning in 1965 when he became the vehicle for an important lesson that I needed to learn and he, like so many others who have come and gone through the years, never truly left me.

Traffic Circles

Our little town, which isn’t so little anymore, recently installed traffic circles and reverse street parking as part of a downtown renovation project. Our community members received these improvements with mixed emotions. I have heard from those that adamantly hate them and from those that simply say something like: “Well, they’re here and I guess we’ll just have to get used to them.” As of yet, I’ve not heard anyone say: “I love them.”

My first encounter with a traffic circle was in 1970. I was sixteen-years-old and on my way to Laguna Beach to visit an old friend who’d recently moved there. I had decided to take the Pacific Coast Highway south rather than traveling on the freeway with my motorcycle and was in for a little surprise when I reached the spot where Lakewood Boulevard met the Coast highway in the form of a traffic circle. I had never seen one before and I circled several times on that merry-go-round until I figured out how to change lanes without getting hit and continuing on towards Laguna Beach.

As it often is with our lives things from our past reach out to greet us once again and my wife and I moved to Long Beach. As we both worked in Torrance the Lakewood Traffic Circle was a daily part of our Pacific Coast Highway commute – both going to and returning from work. In the many hundreds of times we went through that circle I only recall one other time that I had to go around an extra time in order to make a safe lane change and continue our commute. Chalk that up to experience.

Over the years we’ve encountered other traffic circles, such as the ones in Old Town Scottsdale that are sized rather small as ours are. The most memorable traffic circle I’ve encountered thus far in my limited travels is the one that encircles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. When I was there I watched what seemed to be a never-ending onslaught of cars, motorcycles, vans, busses, delivery trucks, and every other imaginable type of motorized land vehicle. While I watched I was amused by the handful of brave (or were they foolish) souls that attempted to dart across Place Charles de Gaulle for a closer view of the Arch only to be driven back by the cacophony of horns decrying their impetuous choice. Of course, one could always walk through the underground tunnel the crosses beneath the circle but then, there were those rumors of muggers and thieves that hid within.

And so, our town has two downtown traffic circles and plans to construct several more in place of the widened streets and traffic lights called for in the city’s master plan. And yes, community members are still complaining.

Don’t get me wrong, the traffic circles are architecturally attractive and have been landscaped and possess custom statuary that reflects the early days of our community. As for myself, I plan my routes to avoid them altogether for two simple reasons. First and foremost, our town has more than one too many aggressive drivers; as I suspect most towns do. Secondly, the beautiful landscaping and statuary serves to somewhat obscure the view of oncoming traffic.

Now, this is not to say I never go through our traffic circles. Why just the other day my wife and I went to do a little Christmas shopping before stopping at the market. With our purchases stowed we set off for the market only to find that my alternate route had been blocked so I bravely went on and through our traffic circles. I thought everything was going just great until I heard: “Honey, you do realize that you are driving over the traffic circle and the street is over there.”

Well, so much for experience – but, thank you all the same for our being in our daughter’s All Wheel Drive Honda CRV rather than in my little 5-speed Cavalier.

The Smell of Christmas

Today was a day off for me, and I even took a break from my writing in order to do some yard work. My first item of business was to head to the local nursery and get a replacement for the apple tree that had previously adorned our patio, but unfortunately, gave in to old age. I also carted home eight bags of Bumper Crop in order to refresh the soil in our garden areas.

Well you might think that planting a 15-gallon apple tree is not to difficult an undertaking but the first thing I discovered was that the soil was as hard as concrete. Darn, should have remembered. While I let the hose run to loosen the soil I went and watered about the rest of the yard and then returned to tackle digging that hole with my shovel and post-hole digger. Well, things were going pretty well until I happened on one particularly difficult piece of baked earth. I studied it for no more than a second and then did something a younger man might have attempted. That was, I planted that shovel and then jumped up into the air and on my way down I thought: This is not going to end well. It didn’t, that stubborn bit of earth gave way and my shovel went north into the pit and I flew south. There was no abort button on that mission and, I landed on my tailbone as my back hit the edge of the planter and, an irrigation pipe struck somewhere in between. I don’t know how I avoided breaking anything or doing permanent damage but after about five minutes of listening to my smarter self berate the one who thought jumping on a shovel with both feet was a good idea – I struggled to my feet, sore but still in one piece.

The Anna Apple tree got planted and rather than calling it a day (as a smarter man might have done) I pruned our roses, and then the holly, and then shooed away the flies that were attracted by the blood that was let by the thorns and pointy leaves. Ouch.

By know you’re wondering what does all of this have to do with Christmas smells.

Our house was built in 1972 and the original occupants planted some evergreen trees along the south edge of the property. I’m not sure what they are but they are very slow growing and produce these tiny blue berries. Since they are slow growing I don’t need to attend to them very often but today I decided to prune some of the branches that had grow down into the walkway where we would either have to dodge them or be knocked in the head. With the first cutting the oil was released and I immediately thought of two things: Christmas, and our house in Running Springs.

Now, Christmas has meant different things to me at different times in my life. When I was a child, I received a years worth of socks and underwear every Christmas. But, when I had my first child I began to think of Christmas in a different light – as my daughter’s grandfather was one of those who insisted on having a 12-foot Christmas Tree every year by which, on either side, were pyramids of presents stacked nearly as high as the tree itself. Since those days my sense of Christmas has reinvented itself depending, I think, upon whether I was spending it alone – or – with a loved one, or as a consequence of other things that may have been going on at the time.

We live in an adequate house that is not designed in such a manner that a Christmas Tree is welcome. This means that some years our Christmas Tree might have been an 18-inch high faux symbol of the season. Some years we’ve tried the artificial tree that currently languishes on a shelf in the garage. Lately, however, we’ve resorted to moving the furniture out of the way and putting a live tree in front of the bay window and, frankly, despite the hassle, I’ve been getting more in the Christmas Spirit. Mostly, I think, because the smell of Christmas reminds me: of strings of cranberries and popcorn; of gift-wrapped socks and underwear; of pumpkin pies, mashed potatoes, gravy, turkey, yams, and black olives; and of a gaggle of under-nourished kids sitting around a tree on Christmas morning complaining of gift-wrapped socks and underwear.

Normally, I would edit this a time or two to make sure everything was hunky dory but there is a bruise on my backside that I suspect is the size of Montana (at least as it appears on my wall map), that is urging me to arise and get myself in the shower to wash away all the grimy traces of my garden. And so, as walk away, I pray that you too have your own Smell of Christmas and that it also brings back pleasant memories – even if they are only of gift-wrapped socks and underwear.