The bidding got going a little later than usual Thursday night at the Christmas tree auction lot downtown.
That's because the auctioneer had to take time out to pound the boards before pushing the pines.
"My school had a basketball game," said 14-year-old Vanessa Ambatielos.
Vanessa is a ninth-grade junior varsity ballplayer from Marlborough School in Hancock Park. She's also a skilled auctioneer who sells a hundred or so trees a night with a nonstop, rapid-fire What-am-I-bid? Who'll-start-at-34? Do-I hear-30? Thirty-30-30! sales spiel.
"It's hard with my braces. They kind of get in the way," said Vanessa, flashing a teenager's metallic smile. "And it's kind of hard when you have a lot of homework."
At a time when other youngsters are helping their parents pick out the perfect Christmas tree to buy, Vanessa is standing on a loading platform at Bay and Lawrence streets, moving them out.
This is the third year that Vanessa has helped handle the bidding at the huge tree lot that her family operates each Christmas season. Their 30-year-old United Melon Distributors Co. deals with produce year-round and serves as a Christmas tree wholesaler in December. The daily auction is a sidelight to the tree wholesale business.
Vanessa started working at the tree lot at the age of 6, using a stick to measure trees and price them for customers who traveled downtown looking for good deals on firs and pines being unloaded from trucks arriving from Oregon.
She polished her sales pitch and perfected her sing-song cadence by watching Kenny Lindsey, her family's longtime regular auctioneer.
Cleanup activity at the tree lot came to a sudden stop at the close of the 1994 Christmas season, when Vanessa unexpectedly climbed atop a pile of unsold Douglas firs and belted out: Knock-it-down, turn-it-around-and-here-we-go! Thirty-four-bidder! Looking-for-a-33-dollar-bidder! Looking-for-a-33!
"The first time she picked up the microphone we figured she was just going to sing 'Jingle Bells' or something," said her uncle Jim Zaferis. "She stunned us."
In a field dominated by men, everyone seems surprised to hear a female auctioneer. They're downright dumbfounded when they learn her age.
"She stacks up real well as an auctioneer," said William Perez of Whittier, who successfully bid $15 for a 6-foot fir that was selected by his wife and two children. "For someone 14, she's really good."
Vanessa is used to seeing eyebrows arch and jaws drop around her auction ring.
"Yesterday one of my teachers was here buying a tree and she was very shocked when she saw me," she said. "Today in class she told me she didn't believe it was me at first."
The teenager works 12 hours at a stretch on Saturdays and Sundays during the three weeks leading up to Christmas. But homework, Student Council duties and basketball practice limit her auctioneering to after 6 p.m. on school days, according to her mother, Vicky Ambatielos.
"She'll have 50 people at a time bidding on weekends. She keeps track of them all without a spotter," Ambatielos said.
Van Ambatielos said his daughter is alert to those who aren't bidding too.
"She reads the crowd. If somebody has waited a long time without buying anything, she'll ask them if they're looking for a particular size" or price, he said.
Vanessa said she's taking college prep courses in hopes of eventually becoming either a teacher or a pediatrician. But she said she might consider someday branching out from tree auctions.
Sotheby's and Christie's, what am I bid?