Tossing Out the Christmas Trash

Without fail, every year, we take down the Christmas before on on New Year’s Day. Symbolically, it represents the fresh start that January brings, even if the rationale behind it is more practical and we just want to get all the crap put away before going back to school and work. It’s not an exciting activity either, unless you find spending a couple of house putting things back in boxes and then hauling heavy bins up the attic stairs exciting. But honestly, how could this be more exciting? It’s just putting away decorations.

Unless, however, you’re a Canadian music video channel. I give you the MuchMusic Tree Toss:

While I obviously didn’t grow up in Canada, Cablevision began carrying the channel sometime in the mid-1990s, giving us Long Island teenagers a welcome third option for getting music video content. And it couldn’t have come at a better time since VH-1 was still playing lighter fare, MTV had The Real World and Road Rules stuck on permanent rerun, and as the decade wore one would turn into a solid retro music channel* and the other a showcase for boy bands, teen pop princesses and faux-edgy nu metal.

I could go into everything I found cool about Much or all the bands I discovered because of it, but I’ll save that for a future podcast episode and focus on just the tree toss. I will say that the fact that Much had veejays broadcasting from a street-level studio who actually had personality (because, let’s face it, Carson Daly always looked like he was counting seconds on the clock and waiting for the check to clear) made the music video experience in Toronto seem so much cooler. Or maybe it’s because they were a lot like the MTV I remember going over to watch at my friends’ houses in junior high and high school (before my parents got cable). At any rate, tossing a used Christmas tree off of the studio’s roof seemed like the type of stupid that cooler, fun-loving people would want to do or that my friends and I were likely to try.

That’s because we sort of did.

While we never had the pleasure of throwing a Christmas tree off of a building, my college roommates and I did spend our sophomore year living on the eighth floor of a hi-rise apartment complex that our college had converted into a dorm. And right below the living room window of that eighth floor dorm room was a construction dumpster. I don’t know whose idea it was, but once we discovered that the window opened all the way out, we’d cap off a night of drinking by throwing bags full of empty beer cans out the window and into the dumpster.

It wasn’t the wanton destruction of property that you would expect from your average fraternity house, but it was something that probably would have gotten us into some sort of disciplinary trouble (okay, definitely) and may have even resulted in our ejection from campus housing (which was less likely). And I wouldn’t be writing about it if we did it one time and then moved on to games of quarters, around the world parties, and sneaking kegs into the dorm**. Instead, we decided to do this the nerdiest way possible, which was to have a procedure to prepare the bags for deployment and then track our throws on a poster we hung up in the dorm room kitchen.***

Trash throwing was strictly a late-night activity done usually on a weekend and very often after many beers–we had bought and drank the 30-pack of Icehouse, and we didn’t want our RA to find a garbage can full of empties in our room****. We had one of those huge Rubbermaid trash cans, the ones you would store in your garage, and used lawn and leaf bags for the trash. This was key because the volume the bag could hold combined with the bag’s thickness meant that the throw was more likely to be accurate and the bag would most likely stay intact upon arrival in the dumpster. And to ensure that the bag didn’t open up on the way down, my engineering-major roommate would reinforce the bag’s opening with duct tape. That way, there wasn’t any mess to clean up on the street below.

According to the caption in my scrapbook, this was a night in April 1997 when we threw a record 20 bags of trash. Note the Phillies Blunt and Clerks posters, which were very common in mid-Nineties dorm rooms.

Preparing the bags was followed by lookout. We’d check the hallways for anyone who might get us in trouble (i.e., another floor’s RA doing rounds), then shut the lights off and look out across the building’s parking lot to see if we could see any campus security or passers-by. When given the all-clear, each of us would grab our bags and take turns tossing the trash.

Now, just as there was a specific preparation procedure, there was a technique to successfully landing a bag. We weren’t just chucking stuff out of an eighth-floor window for the fun of it; we were actually taking out the trash. If any of us missed the dumpster or the bag exploded and trash landed on the ground, a few of us would go downstairs and clean it up. The dumpster was about 14-16 feet long and 7-1/2 feet wide***** positioned perpendicular to the building. So we had a margin of error when it came to length but a tighter fit when it came to width.

A good throw, therefore, required finesse. You couldn’t just drop the trash because you risked it falling short of the dumpster, and you couldn’t heave it too hard because it might go too far forward or drift sideways. After all, this was a contest of precision and not strength, so what you had to do was hold the bag out in front of you using both hands, position it over the dumpster, and give it a quick shove as you let it go. This would send it forward just enough for it to float over the dumpster’s center and hopefully guaranteed a straight shot. Heavier bags were better because you could feel the force of the shove against their weight as opposed to the lighter bags, which often led to an overthrow. At least that’s what I found to be the case.

When the bag left your hand, it arced for a moment and seemed to hang in the air for a millisecond before it began the plunge. Sometimes, we’d hear the flapping of the plastic bag as it dropped; other times, there was a whoosh. But each time, there was the sound of impact, which would be a soft crash if the dumpster was full or an incredibly loud boom if it was empty. And if you listened closely enough, you could hear the cheers from the eighth floor.******

In fact, one of those incredibly loud booms nearly got us caught one night, as we threw a bag, shut the window, and a few moments later saw flashlights pointed in our direction. We all hit the deck and scattered to various corners of the dorm room as the phone started ringing. Despite being drunk and scared, I managed to sound completely baffled when someone from campus police mentioned things being thrown from our window and the front desk attendant reporting an explosion. While I was on the phone, another campus police officer knocked on the door and I heard my friend telling him the same thing, then inviting him in to take a look. I panicked for a moment and then got off the phone to see him checking out no evidence whatsoever–in the time it took for me to answer the phone and bumble my way through that conversation, my friend had put the screen back in the window, set up the display of empty beer bottles we kept along the windowsill, and hid everything else.*******

To bring this back to the MuchMusic Tree Toss, I was home on winter break during my senior year in December 1998 and channel surfing when I came upon Ed the Sock dressed in a tuxedo anchoring that year’s events. I was immediately transfixed–they weren’t going to do what I thought the were going to do, were they?

Oh, they were.

The crew–one of whom included Rick “The Temp” Campanelli, went up to the roof of the studio, positioned the tree on the ledge, and then tossed it over, setting the tree alight (and one year–either ’98 or ’99, almost took Rick’s face off). It would then land in the dumpster. Okay, if you watch the clip above, you know that it rarely actually made it into the dumpster. Then again, I can’t imagine that the Much crew put as much thought into the accuracy of their toss as we did our trash tossing. Had we been in charge, my roommate would have done the proper equations to compensate for the thrust of the pyrotechnics. Still, the motivation for the Tree Toss was obvious–we’ve got the time to fill, we’ve got nothing better to do, and the tree and the dumpster are there.

I am not sure when Much stopped the Tree Toss–the last one I remember seeing was probably 2000. I did get the channel in Arlington for a while, but it was only at certain times of the day and was gone pretty quickly. The same was true for trash tossing–after the police incident, we didn’t toss it very much except for a “last hurrah” right before spring semester finals. The following year, we were in a different building without any accessible dumpsters.

In a still from the Tree Toss retrospective video embedded above, the MuchMusic tree flies out over the studio parking lot en route to the dumpster.

But I did get the chance to go to my old dorm room one day in my junior year when one of the residents called me to say that they had received some mail with my name on it. I headed over, thanked them for hanging onto the mail for me, and before I left, I pointed to the dumpster window and mentioned that it opened out all the way.

“Oh, we know,” one of them told me.

“Nice,” I replied.

* That is, when VH-1 wasn’t playing Shania Twain videos between reruns of the Shania Twain episode of Behind the Music.

** I’d held on to the box for my computer’s monitor and we quickly discovered that it fit a pony keg. One roommate’s fake ID got us the beer; the box got us past campus security.

*** Lest you think we bought poster board for this, we tore down one of those ubiquitous “get a MasterCard” posters that were all over campus in late August and wrote on the back of it with a Sharpie.

**** To be fair to my sophomore year RA, she was awesome in that she didn’t give a shit as long as we didn’t draw too much attention to ourselves.

***** Just to be clear, I never measured the dumpster. I simply Googled “dumpster dimensions”.

****** Watching it from the ground was hilarious, and I’ve often wondered if anyone from the floors below ever glanced out the window to see a random bag of trash go whizzing by.

******* Oh don’t look at me like that, every college dorm room had its “various brands of beer bottles” display. Sometimes there were several varieties of empty Absolut bottles.

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