broken pine treeI was still dressed in pajamas when my doorbell rang on the Sunday morning before Christmas.  Inconvenient, but not something I could ignore. I cranked open the blinds to see who was on the porch. A scruffy man, hat in hand, stood warily eyeing my dogs.

“Could I help you?” I asked without opening the door.

“Would you like me to work on your pine tree?” He pointed to the far corner of the front yard.

That tree had been an issue for months. A “living” Christmas tree, it was planted sometime in the late 1970s and was now at least thirty feet tall. Last winter’s ice storms had made a mess of it, though the electric company didn’t consider it a threat to the power lines. If I wanted the dead limbs cut off and hauled away, I would have to pay for it. So I opened the door.

“How much?” The man quoted me a price that seemed more than reasonable. I looked at the beat-up truck parked in my driveway and my radar started beeping. “Do you have a bucket truck and a chipper?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “I’ll climb the tree and saw off the branches and then haul them away. That’s how come I can do it so cheap.”

I should have trusted my radar, now beeping like crazy, and told him thanks but no thanks. How many stories had I heard and read about naive homeowners bamboozled by fly-by-night handymen? More than I could count. I once worked for the Better Business Bureau, for heaven’s sake. I knew the score. The only sensible thing to do was to send this man on his way.

Yeah, but. He looked so down-and-out. He spoke so knowledgably about trees. The price was right. And it was five days before Christmas. What could I do but say yes?

“I’ll need a hundred dollar deposit,” he said.

I shook my head. “I can’t pay you until the job is done.”

I arrived home from church a couple of hours later to find him hard at work. A few of the dead limbs had been sawed off and were stacked high in the bed of his truck. He told me he was heading to a brush pile to dump them and would be right back. Could I give him some money now? Reluctantly, I wrote a check.

He didn’t return that afternoon. Or the next day. Or the next. I called and texted him several times. His story was always the same. His helper had quit but another guy had promised to work with him soon. In the meantime, he was low on funds. He had to get his equipment out of hock. Buy gas for his truck. Settle up his motel bill. Could I go ahead and pay the rest of what I owed him, even though he hadn’t finished the job? He was good for it, he assured me. Times were tough. It was Christmas. He had three hungry kids to feed.

What to do? I’d already paid him for way more than the work he’d done. Reputable workmen don’t expect payment for labor they haven’t finished. If I gave this man more upfront money, didn’t that make me a victim? And an enabler? But he had three kids, or so he said. And it was two days before Christmas.

So I handed him a hundred dollar bill.

That was three weeks ago. The itinerant tree cutter hasn’t been back. His cell number isn’t in service. My yard looks far worse than it did before he started. And though I try to think of the whole sorry mess as unwitting charity at Christmastime, I can’t help but kick myself for being taken for a chump.

(January 10, 2016)