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Edison Complex

Willow Glen
Robin Denton

Tree Huffers: Volunteers get into the spirit, blanketing Willow Glen with holiday evergreen trees.

Of lawn trees, light displays and the not-so-subtle art of making spirits bright in Willow Glen

By Corinne Asturias

'It was a bad tree. The worst tree I ever saw. It had no branches in the middle at all, just a few at the bottom and top," says Steve Denton, breathless from his early-morning round delivering trees to nine neighborhoods in Willow Glen, including mine. "But we always get a few extra trees, for Charlie Browns like that. I just gave the family another one."

Denton surveys the remaining load of firs tucked in the bed of his red Mazda pickup, trees which will be tied upright to a stake on each lawn and dressed in colored lights. The effect, for nighttime passersby in this hamlet of San Jose, is like driving through a kind of incandescent candyland. It is a sight that would either elate Thomas Edison or send him running for the eggnog bowl.

It's still early, and most of the trees Denton has dropped off are lying sideways on front lawns, their limbs held in close like newborns. It is hard to imagine a bad tree like the one he has described, a tree which can't be saved by decoration. But Denton, who knows that exactly 44 trees will fit into the bed of his truck, can talk trees and lights with the best of them. Denton's own front yard is a twittering Vegas of 2,500 bulbs, some of which pulsate on shrubbery, wrap around tree trunks, or appear to flow like liquid through veins. "But I'm puny," he says deferentially, "compared to the guy on Minnesota. Or the Willow [Street] tree."

In eight years, Denton and the other coordinators have gotten this neighborhood tree thing down to a science. Denton, for example, is one of three tree-coordinators who supervise nine block distributors. Although there are clipboards and grids and the making of a miniature army, he stops short of using verbs like "deploy" and "mobilize." Denton remains humble. It's the helpers who make it happen. It's Bill Nicolosi who got this thing going again in 1986, and Juan Chapa, another coordinator, who deserve mention. "And Dave Green, our supplier for the trees, has worked his patooties off," he says.

Four blocks over, Dave Green is driving seven miles an hour, pulling a trailer mounded six feet high with trees and teenage helpers. The belly of his slow-moving gray Cordoba rides only an inch or two above the asphalt. Green is a trim, soft-spoken man with short dark hair. I do not ask about his patooty.

"I've been on pins and needles for the past few days," he says. "One of the drivers carrying a truckload of trees from Washington ended up in Utah. He couldn't find San Jose." He tells me a little over 600 trees were needed this year, and he had to scurry around for more trees were at the last minute. "I got what we needed" he says, visibly relieved. "Had to."

The last thing Green could stand to let happen would be to have neighborhoods go without trees. It's hard to imagine Willow Glen without this orgasmic electric display. A friend tells me it is her family's annual tradition to go to Christmas in the Park downtown, and then swing through the light show of Willow Glen on the way home. Lights seem to be suburban California's answer to the sparkle of snow.

When we first moved into this neighborhood, I thought we might resist the tree trend, wasteful of forest and energy resources that it is. Then I realized that our house would be like the missing stone in a rhinestone necklace. I also noticed young people helping the elderly put up their trees, neighbors chatting for blocks. How could we miss being part of this community Kodak moment?

This year we decided to spring for two strands of lights for our the lawn tree, to live high on the holiday hog. But a kind of sparkle inflation has occurred. Now there are trees made into snowmen. A roof on Camino Ramon is literally covered with a blanket of white lights to resemble snow, with a sleigh on it and everything. Another neighbor has a tree decorated with CDs that bend and throw the light like an ice sculpture. The rows upon rows of lawn trees seem to stretch for miles. It's a little like Disneyland, except it doesn't cost sightseers anything, and you can go in your house and close the door when you're tired of it.

"Me, I like to go nuts," Denton says proudly. "It's like my little tidbit that I do for the community. It gives people a lot of joy."

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From the December 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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