Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve, 1973


Almost forty years ago, I came to Philadelphia because I had a friend who offered to put me up on his couch for a few weeks.  Times were hard back then and there was no work to be found.  I survived off of temp jobs, and by selling my blood and writing essays for a term paper mill.  Sometimes I went hungry.

Christmas was kind of a low point for me.  I was sleeping in the living room of a trinity house rented by art students, with the understanding that I'd take over the lease of one of them who wanted out, just as soon as I got a real job.  I had a bit of work then, demonstrating toys at a department store, but my employer was slow in paying me.  The students went home for the holidays, all my friends were out of town, and I had the heat cranked down low, out of respect for my almost-housemates who had to pay for utilities.  On Christmas Eve, as a special treat, I had two turkey pot pies instead of my usual one, with a tiny can of cranberry jelly to go with them.

The house was on 15th Street, near South, which at that time was a pretty raffish neighborhood.  Next door was the Sahara Hotel, where rooms rented by the hour.  Across the street was Sister Minnie's Kitchen, which used to be a soul food restaurant, but by then had been converted to a flophouse.

I had just taken the pot pies out of the oven and was about to sit down to eat when there was a knock on the door.  I went to answer it, and there was Leroy.  Leroy was one of the winos who flopped across the street, and one of the neighborhood characters.  With a big grin, he said "Merry Christmas!" and stuck out his hand.

When I told him I didn't have any money, Leroy started cursing me -- vehement, scabrous stuff.  So I closed the door on him and went back to the table.

I sat down and looked at the pot pies.  "Merry Christmas," I said to nobody at all.


Marianne thinks that's a terribly sad story.  But I don't.  I was living on hope back then.  I was going to learn how to write, and someday I'd make a living at it.  That was all I wanted from life, and I was willing to pay the freight.  Poverty, loneliness, and a Christmas spent sans friends sans family sans everything was just part of the price of admission.

Today, I make a living as a writer.  I'm married to a woman I love and have a son I'm proud of.  I have friends who mean a lot to me and a city that feels like home.  I have food and heat and a brand-new cat.  Tonight, Sean will come by and I'll tell this year's Christmas story while we sit by the wood stove with a fire going and hot drinks and a big heap of presents by the tree.

Things turned out better for me than I expected.  I wish the same for you.

Above:  Rather a blurry shot, I'm afraid.  You can pretend that it's a misty holiday memory, if you're feeling particularly charitable.



Oz said...

Not sad to me. I never starved and I was never alone, but my future husband and I flew from the east coast, where our families were, to the west coast where he was going to grad school. It took me a month to get a low-paying job that had nothing to do with my liberal arts degree from Amherst. I was an inventory clerk for a piping products company. I supported both of us on $10.5k a year in a very expensive city, Seattle, and we even saved a bit. We had no car. We had no furniture. Our first purchase was a mattress, of course. We ate off of a suitcase on the two dinner plates we had brought with us.

Our first Christmas, we bought a few tiny baubles and put them on a jade bush. Our families were three time zones away and we didn't know anyone in Seattle yet. We weren't in debt, but we didn't have much money. I think we bought ourselves a large quilt for the mattress (which was on the floor) as our Christmas present that year.

It's living on hope, yes, hope and the future's promise.


genovefa said...

Très Joyeux Noël to you and your family.
We should always be hopeful and grateful for what we have.
It is better to be in a half-full glass spirit and never feel sorry for oneself.

Bruce said...

Merry Christmas, Michael, to you and your loved.