I know I wasn’t very old, maybe five years old, when our family drove down to a tree lot in Crystal City one December to pick out a Christmas tree. This was before my youngest brother Robert was even born.
The tree lot was near the intersection of 7th Ave. and Lake Street and it was my first memory of not only picking out a Christmas tree, it was also my first memory of seeing our town’s homeless man. This man known as Assi Alli, or “El Arabe” was of Lebanese heritage and went around town picking up trash. There was a lot of mystery about Assi Alli. It is believed he took to the streets after a personal tragedy. One of the stories is that his wife left him for another man, but there were many stories and no one knows which, if any of them, were true.
Assi Alli always wore a little United States flag in his hat and was often seen praying towards Mecca.
Townspeople often gave him food and more were kind to him than not.
That first time I saw him though, I was only a little girl, and to me, this old man in disheveled clothes and gray hair and beard, muttering something in what sounded like another language, frightened me. He did wave, but I inched closer to my mother.
My parents, my sister, brother and I continued to look around at all the trees but I kept a watchful eye for that man that waved at me.
We had started at the front of the lot and worked our way back, looking at an endless number of tall, short, skinny and fat trees. Some were too smushed on one side or had some other deformity. It seemed to take forever.
Mom and Dad didn’t seem to like any of the trees. Finally though we walked back to the front of the lot and Yep, you guessed it, they chose the first tree they had laid their eyes on, paid for the tree, and then the lot attendant helped Dad tie the tree to the luggage rack on top of the station wagon and we drove home.