The man in the steel-gray shirt looked a bit overwhelmed. Standing amid a parking lot full of freshly cut pine trees, he threw up his hands and stared about, dumbfounded.
"I, I don't . . . know what to do," he stammered as people all around him snapped up the bound Christmas trees.
In an instant, Fred Williams rushed to his rescue.
"Brother, just grab one and go," Williams said, smiling. "One body, one tree. Take any one you want."
Returning the smile, the man nodded, heaved a huge pine and hurried away.
"That's what it's all about," Williams said. "Us helping one another."
Williams and a band of about 50 young men from South Los Angeles have been practicing that message for the last week, doling out free Christmas trees from a USC parking lot on 36th Street and Vermont Avenue. In a neighborhood of low-income, working-class residents, Williams' giveaway provides trees for many who cannot afford one.
Since last Monday, Williams said, he and his volunteer team have given away more than 15,000 trees. And, if half-block-long lines are any indication, demand among local families is still high.
"The trees that people are selling are too expensive," said Barbara Simons, as her husband toted a Christmas tree from the lot to their car. "This program is great. Now I can get another gift."
"A lot of these trees are more than $50," said Williams, 30, known in the area as "Mr. Fred." "Obviously, living conditions have brought some of these people down here to get these trees."
Williams said pine tree growers throughout the county provide the Bob Porter Foundation with the trees, donating their surplus holiday stock.
Williams became involved in the foundation 16 years ago, helping in the Christmas tree giveaway when it was run by the group's patriarch, Bob Porter, who died in 1985.
Although Williams and his helpers have been able to meet demand without too much trouble, he conceded that the program has not been free of glitches.
"We've had people trying to get more than one and then sell them farther down the street," he said. "But we are trying to stop that from happening. We had to chase one guy down the street to get a tree back."
Williams said he also had to mollify one irate man who threatened to return with a gun if he was not immediately served.
"He was cutting in front of people in line and trying to barge up to the gate," Williams said. "I walked over to the brother and said: 'What are you going to do? Shoot me over a Christmas tree?' I asked him what he really wanted, we gave him a tree, and he left talking about, 'Have a Merry Christmas.' I think he was a little embarrassed."
Williams said the key to the program's success is "having patience."
A youth counselor who works out of a bungalow at Markham Junior High School, Williams has been aided by many young volunteers who say they show up at the university parking lot "just because Mr. Fred asked."
"He helps us," said Daniel Thompson, 11, who helps Williams give out trees. "He helps people get back in school. . . . We all respect him."
Throughout the program, which ends this weekend, Williams' pride and activism has proved infectious.
"I just wanted to help people," said 14-year-old Eddie Williams, a youth not related to Mr. Fred. "I wanted people to know that black people around here are kind, too. You can have the Christmas spirit no matter who you are or where you live at."