Hawking trees is one youth's ticket to a dream

At Christmas, country boys flock to bright cities like Chicago to sell fir trees - and maybe fulfill their hearts' ambitions.

Nestled by the rushing traffic of one of Chicago's busiest streets is a grove of freshly cut Christmas trees.

The grove is ringed by blazing floodlights, and in its midst is a round-topped, slightly rusted, 1950s aluminum-sided trailer. For the past month, this grove has been home to Charlie Rose, a recent high-school grad from rural Antigo, Wis.

Wearing a bright-orange hunting hat with a "Hi, my name is Charlie" tag, he's in charge of the lot - 24 hours a day. He sells trees by day - and eats and sleeps in the trailer at night. His boss brings him new food and trees daily.

Charlie works with 14 other young men who have traveled from the backwoods of America to this city of big-shouldered skyscrapers.

But Charlie is here to do much more than hawk trees in the Rogers Park section of Chicago. Like the stockyard rustlers and railroad barons who built this city, he's come here to construct his dreams. "Yep, I always wanted to come to Chicago," he says. "This was my chance."

In this age of cellular phones, globe-spanning technology, and easy-money lotteries, Charlie's story is the age-old tale of a country boy journeying to the big city to fulfill his dreams.

As Chicago poet Carl Sandburg put it, "If the big arch of the sky were paper and the violet depths of the sea were ink, I could never live long enough to write the dreams of man and the dynamic drive of those dreams."

"Living in the city, you're always living on the edge," Charlie says. "Up there in Wisconsin, there's just fields and forest. It's kinda dull." For him, the ticket to fame is to perform stand-up comedy: "I'll give that a whirl - and make some big money," he says. "It might be hard to break in, but if you just keep tryin'...."

But for now, his life revolves around his trailer - a walk-in-closet-sized room with an electric-coil heater, a TV with a hanger for an antenna, and a tiny cube of a refrigerator.

"It's all I need," he says. On cold nights, he fires up the four-burner gas stove. "It's just like an oven," he says, patting the trailer's sides.

Yes, the nights can be long, but as far as big cities go, Chicago is perhaps a more gentle incubator of dreams than other metropolises.

Passersby often stop to chat. "Sheesh," he says, "people here are so nice, it just makes you want to meet more. One good- lookin' girl even brought me a cappuccino," he adds, with a flick of his eyebrows.

For now, it's being on his own - even if tethered to this Christmas tree lot - that lights Charlie up.

He can eat what he chooses. "Yeah, sometimes I whip up a steak - whatever I want." (Tonight, though, it's hot dogs.)

He can watch what he wants on TV. (Tonight it's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer.")

And, in this city of dreams, he can be whatever he chooses.

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