This is the sixth in a series of Christmas reflections.
War Admiral Avenue
While living on War Admiral Avenue in San Jose, we sat around musing, “What can we do to earn some Christmas money?” There never was a money-making, get-rich scheme, like the mushroom candle gig we engineered in that fall/winter of 1974. I give one hundred percent of the credit to Matt, though Noel was a key component to the whole project, especially when we drove Molly, his yellow VW Bus up to the mountains to get bark for the candles.
There were six of us living in the four bedroom, corner house in South San Jose: Nancie and I; Noel and Sharon; and Matt and Steve. Steve was Sharon’s six feet, six inch, sophomore-in-high school brother, who had joined us in time for school to begin in September. Steve was not in trouble at home or anything like that; his folks just thought that he would do well with his big sister. He flourished in our household, including making a concerted effort to contribute to chores such as cooking and cleaning.
Matt brought the concept of the candles, together with the most experience, to the table in San Jose. That first year we operated solely out of the garage, and all phases of the game were conducted on the premises. We had the bark inside so that it was dry; we had the four foot by four foot sand box in one corner, which we needed to create the mushrooms themselves, made out of paraffin wax, obtained by the ton from Tap Plastics, in Redwood City.
We set the cast mushrooms on the bark, in varying numbers, depending on how big the bark was. Next we heated vats of wax as close to boiling as possible, consulting the thermometer regularly, so as not to allow the wax to overheat. We then distributed the wax over the mushrooms with turkey basters, the wax flowing over the top, and down the sides of each mushroom, slowly forming the stalactites which were so essential for the overall effect.
The most commonly asked question was, “Are they magic mushrooms?” The response was automatic. “You better believe it.”
We began making the candles in September, driving around San Jose and neighboring cities, trying to get our candles into the gift shops in time for Christmas. As we got into October, we started taking a van load full to the flea market each Sunday, at least two members of the household having to be along on that type of chore.
There were Sunday mornings when the crew getting up at 3:30, in order to drive to the flea market and get into line, met the candle-making crew on its way to bed. Of course, they were just wrapping up the most recent batch, and getting the candles boxed and ready for the flea market.
There was a sense of unity and comaraderie, because we all had our individual school careers and jobs going on, but we were also working together on this other enterprise. I remember the initial thought was to make money for Christmas, but the whole thing rocketed out of control, so much further than merely making some extra spare change. The figure I remember was five thousand dollars made, with all overhead paid and significant chunks of change going to each member of the crew.
Whether or not we got the loot in time to buy gifts, or whether we even considered spending the money for anything but food for the table, I do not remember. I do remember the sense of exhilaration at what we were doing, and how much fun we had while doing it.
As a household we combined talents, schedules, funds, and energy into a huge container, and churned out a successful endeavor, from every angle. Each of us had specific strengths, and contributed accordingly. No matter what you could or couldn’t do, as far as the manufacture of the candles, everyone could help peddle them.
One of the most interesting-and enjoyable venues for selling them, was the art fair held annually in the student union at San Jose State University. Already a home away from home for all of us living on the south end of the city, the fair being in the student union was great. We had to park blocks away normally, and then hang out all day long on campus anyway, so we chose most frequently to chill in the student union, the availability of the library notwithstanding.
By being official vendors we got preferential parking, within a few steps of the building, making it easy to transport our candles. Too bad the fair only went for one week out of the year.