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Caught in my own tangle of Christmas lights

Bill Domjan:

Bill Domjan: "My customers weren't interested in aesthetics. They just wanted to have more lights than their neighbors." Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock / ryasick

I will always remember that day in 1983 when I received a call from my friend Jack, who was a landscaper.

“Hey, Bill,” he said. “I’m going out of the Christmas lighting business. Would your sons be interested in making a few dollars over Christmas vacation?”

I had two sons in college, and Jack explained that he had a number of customers who paid him to string lights at their homes. Jack said he would sell me the lights for $300, which was much less than he paid for them.

Great idea! I thought my sons could earn some money to help with their expenses, but they were not especially enthused. Reluctantly, they agreed to work over their vacations from school. I should have known better.

Jack drove his pickup to my home in Greenlawn and unloaded boxes and boxes of Christmas lights, extension cords, ribbons and various other ornaments. Since the lights weren’t new, they all had to be tested. And that had to be done before the boys got home, because when they arrived we had to be ready for installation. Two broken bulbs would cause an entire string of 50 not to light, and it was maddeningly time-consuming to find the failed bulbs. And I did this night after night after coming home from my day job.

I also started calling customers to set up installation dates. It seemed everybody wanted it done at the same time. This meant we — I use that term loosely — would have to start early each day and work long hours to complete all the jobs in the few weekends before Christmas. That doesn’t really fit in with the schedule of 20-year-olds who go out every night, but never before 11. So most mornings, I’d be up before the sun, load the car with the boxes of lights, extension cords and decorations, along with my staple gun, ladder, 15-foot pole for placing lights on trees and head out to start decorating — alone.

I climbed up and down the ladder, stapling light strings to eaves, door frames, window boxes and anything else that would hold a staple. My customers weren’t interested in aesthetics. They just wanted to have more lights than their neighbors.

Countless wreaths were hung on doors and windows, and endless strings of lights wrapped around huge trees. By the end of each day, my fingers and toes were numb. My sons did help, but all I remember are the times I spent alone — cursing out Jack, myself, my boys and this dumb idea.

And that was just the installation. At dinner, the phone would ring.

“Mr. Domjan my lights have gone out,” a customer would say. “Could you come over and fix them?”

We made some money the first few years, but it was always the same, with me doing all the preparations and the boys helping — instead of the other way around. When it was time to take down the decorations, the boys were back in school and that also became my job.

Each year, the work became more onerous, and the complaints more numerous. Each year, we lost customers and the business eventually degenerated to the point when one homeowner in Eaton’s Neck told us that if we didn’t take down his lights soon (it was almost Easter), he would take them down himself and keep them. That was the last year of our business — he kept the lights.

Reader Bill Domjan lives in Melville.

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