what are you going to do with 390 photographs of christmas trees?

I don’t know. But it seemed the thing to do in that first week in January
1964, and I got two other people to join me. One of them wants to remain
anonymous, and that’s all right.

I think we were still in shock over President Kennedy’s assassination.
Perhaps that had something to do with all those photographs of Christmas trees.

The Christmas of 1963 looked terrible, illuminated by all the flags in
America hanging at half-mast week after week in December in a tunnel of
mourning.

I was living by myself in a very strange apartment where I was taking care
of an aviary for some people who were in Mexico. I fed the birds every day
and changed bird water and had a little vacuum cleaner to tidy up the aviary
when it was needed.

I ate dinner by myself on Christmas day. I had some hot dogs and beans and
drank a bottle of rum with Coca-Cola. It was a lonesome Christmas and
President Kennedy’s murder was almost like one of those birds that I had to
feed every day.

The only reason I am mentioning this is to kind of set the psychological
frame for 390 photographs of Christmas trees. A person does not get into
this sort of thing without sufficient motivation.

Late one evening I was walking home from visiting some people on Nob Hill.
We had sat around drinking cup after cup of coffee until our nerves had
become lionesque.
I left around midnight and walked down a dark and silent street toward
home, and I saw a Christmas tree abandoned next to a fire hydrant.

The tree had been stripped of its decorations and lay there sadly like a
dead soldier after losing a battle. A week before it had been a kind of hero.

Then I saw another Christmas tree with a car half-parked on it. Somebody
had left their tree in the street and the car had accidently run over it.
The tree was certainly a long way from a child’s loving attention. Some of
the branches were sticking up through the bumper.

It was that time of the year when people in San Francisco get rid of their
Christmas trees by placing them in the streets or vacant lots or wherever
they can get rid of them. It is the journey away from Christmas.

Those sad and abandoned Christmas trees really got on my conscience. They
had provided what they could for that assassinated Christmas and now they
were just being tossed out to lie there in the streets like bums.

I saw dozens of them as I walked home through the beginning of the new
year. There are people who just chuck their Christmas trees right out the
front door. A friend of mine tells a story about walking down the street on
December 26th and having a Christmas tree go whistling right by his ear, and
hearing a door slam. It could have killed him.

There are others who go about abandoning their Christmas trees with stealth
and skill. That evening I almost saw somebody put a
Christmas tree out, but not quite. They were invisible like the Scarlet
Pimpernel. I could almost hear the Christmas tree
being put out.

I went around the corner and there in the middle of the street lay a tree,
but nobody was around. There are always people who do a thing with
greatness, no matter what it is.

When I arrived home I went to the telephone and called up a friend of mine
who is a photographer and accessible to the strange energies of the
Twentieth Century. It was almost one o’clock in the morning. I had
awakened him and his voice was a refugee from sleep.

“Who is it?” he said.

“Christmas trees,” I said.

“What?”

“Christmas trees.”

“Is that you, Richard?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“What about them?”

“Christmas is only skin deep,” I said. “Why don’t we take hundreds of
pictures of Christmas trees that are abandoned in the streets? We’ll show
the despair and abandonment of Christmas by the way people throw their trees
out.”

“Might as well do that as anything else,” he said. “I’ll start tomorrow
during my lunch hour.”

“I want you to photograph them just like dead soldiers,” I said. “Don’t
touch or pose them. Just photograph them the way they fell.”

The next day he took photographs of Christmas trees during his lunch hour.
He worked at Macy’s then and went up on the slopes of Nob Hill and Chinatown
and took pictures of Christmas trees there.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 11, 14, 21, 28, 37, 52, 66.

I called him that evening.

“How did it go?”

“Wonderful,” he said.

The next day he took more photographs of Christmas trees during his lunch hour.

72, 85, 117, 128, 137.

I called him up that evening, too.

“How did it go?”

“Couldn’t be better,” he said. “I’ve almost got 150 of them”

“Keep up the good work,” I said. I was busy lining up a car for the
weekend, so that we would have mobility to take more Christmas tree photographs.

The person who drove us around the next day desires to remain anonymous.
He is afraid that he would lose his job and face financial and social
pressures if it got out that he worked with us that day.

The next morning we started out and we drove all over San Francisco taking
photographs of abandoned Christmas trees. We faced the project with the
zest of a trio of revolutionaries.

142, 159, 168, 175, 183.

We would be driving along and spot a Christmas tree lying perhaps in the
front yard of somebody’s lovely house in Pacific Heights or beside an
Italian grocery store in North Beach. We would suddenly stop and jump out
and rush over to the Christmas tree and start taking pictures from every angle.

The simple people of San Francisco probably thought that we were all
completely deranged: bizarre. We were traffic stoppers in the classic
tradition.

199, 215, 227, 233, 245.

We met the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti out walking his dog on Potrero Hill.
He saw us jump out of the car and immediately start taking pictures of a
fallen Christmas tree lying on the sidewalk.

277, 278, 279, 280, 281.

As he walked by, he said, “Taking pictures of Christmas trees?”

“Sort of,” we said and all thinking paranoically: Does he know
what we are doing?
We wanted to keep it a big secret. We
thought we really had something good going and it needed the right amount of
discretion before it was completed.

So the day passed and our total of Christmas tree photographs crept over
the 300 mark.

“Don’t you think we have enough now?” Bob said.

“No, just a few more,” I said.

317, 332, 345, 356, 370.

“Now?” Bob said.

We had driven all the way across San Francisco again and were on Telegraph
Hill, climbing down a broken staircase to a vacant lot where somebody had
tossed a Christmas tree over a cyclone fence. The tree had the same candor
as Saint Sebastian, arrows and all.

“No, just a few more,” I said.

386, 387, 388, 389, 390.

“We must have enough now,” Bob said.

“I think so,” I said.

We were all very happy. That was the first week of 1964. It was a strange
time in America.

– richard brautigan

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