I think, perhaps, there is something inherently magical, maybe almost unreal sometimes, about people during the holidays. You can see the attitudinal difference begin to shift in the lateness of Autumn, as everything earthly around you changes its coloring. People begin dressing more often in darker colors. They thinly layer their clothing under mid-weather coats, maybe sometimes with an added dash of a red scarf if it’s cool enough, or bright tan leather boots. They mimic the leaves on the trees as they turn from the verdant green into impossible golds, sometimes burgundy, then fiery oranges into pale browns. The leaves seem heavier with their vibrancy and coloring prior to breaking off and falling slowly down onto the now sleeping, greyish grasses and the concrete sidewalks and streets. An almost suicidal leaving. There seems to be a renewal of hope and one of mystery through the cooling weather prior to the Winter and its grand entrance, its show of force with frigid winds and bright white snow, that invariably changes to grey, sometimes black slush, from the vehicles motoring through big city streets. I imagine the purity of that snow stays longer in quieter towns with mostly farmland surrounding the people and their homes. Big city or small-town, Winter snow is always a harbinger of Christmastime, despite, perhaps, its place on the calendar of time.
When I was a Kid, living in cities with no turning leaves and no falling snow didn’t matter because my favorite thing was to lay underneath the Christmas Tree for hours, staring up through the branches of the ornamented and light-wrapped branches. If I squinted just so at the light reflecting off the shiny colored balls, I could almost convince myself there was a crisp, cold wind blowing and soft snow falling quietly outside. But as I grew older, my ideations about Christmastime changed. And where I live now only brings heavy Crepe Myrtle flower snow on these concrete sidewalks and streets in droves of white, fuchsia, and red, as the flowers mark their own calendar time, teasing the end of the brutal, filthy, long Summers, that sometimes last into late Autumn, here in the South. Carpets of Crepe Myrtle snow covering everything in their wake that if maybe you squint at hard enough…but that’s probably another story for another day.
As I reached my twenties, living in Chicago, I lived a better sense of the changing of the seasons and the attitudinal shifts of the people in the city. I also lived without any Christmas trees to lay under and their branches to squint through. There was always a tiny pang of missing that particular part of Christmas, but it would almost always flash by so quickly that I would not dwell on it. I simply stopped celebrating the holidays. There’s no real reason for this and yet, there are many reasons, I suppose. Nothing so traumatic or terrible, it was just the way it became. Like a Tuesday turning into a Wednesday at midnight with no notice because you were asleep. And it was OK. And I told myself it was OK each year because I felt I had to, sometimes. And it was OK because inevitably, I would always wind up working. I would take all of the major holiday shifts in whichever job I was working at the time. It worked out fine because I didn’t have any immediate family in town, and I didn’t have any Kids. No Kids to lay underneath a Christmas tree and squint up through the branches.
Throughout those years, I learned to make my own Holidays, or perhaps Un-Holidays, of sorts. It began on a random Thanksgiving and then that Christmas it became a routine. I would usually have to work those nights, so I would take myself out for a late lunch at this Diner located near a Movie Theatre. It was one of those smaller theatre venues, a 2-Screen Job. I would do a Coffee, a bowl of soup, and grilled cheese. It was always super cold outside. But I remember the Diner was nothing but a big, rectangular box of steamed heat, decorated for Christmas with dusty, plastic, green garland and drooping silver bows. Sometimes, the outside of the windows were sprayed with what looked like 1970s Christmas tree flocking with scattered words of “Jolly Ho-Ho”, “Joy”, “Jingle Bells”, “Happy”. The messages would change from year to year, but by Christmas Eve, the flocking would be half-off or smeared and the messages became puzzles to suss out on our own. The large plate glass windows would sweat heavily on the inside and there were maybe nine other people in the whole joint, all of them self-relegated to Table For One status, except myself & a couple of men, older-than-dirt, who chose to sit up at the long, scared, wooden counter, with at least 3 to 6 buffer seats among us. The sweating windows ran rivulets through the steam and the headlights and streetlights would waver dreamlike through the glass throwing colors of light onto the dirty beige walls of the Diner with the passing buses and cars.
I spent many years in that Diner and that Movie Theatre. Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve Holiday, after Holiday, with what appeared to be the same people. And I swear to all that may or may not be holy to you, it was literally the same older-than-dirt men I shared that wooden counter with for years. Every time. The man who always sat closest to me, on the left, would never take off his coat or hat. He always wore the same dark grey, tweed button-up coat, red scarf, and bright orange wool stocking hat. It would always push itself lower onto his big black, square-framed glasses. The lenses were thick, smeared with fingerprints, heavy, and the only time he ever looked my way, his eyes were these huge, watery, green orbs underneath the lenses. He’d occasionally push the hat up off his glasses, but never took it off. He would only take off his black leather driving gloves and lay them carefully to the right of his knife. The rest of us would take off our coats, unfurl our scarves, slide off our hats, because it was always so warm inside. Our own rectangular box of steam heat. A sauna of absurdity.
I would have my Holiday feast of Coffee, soup, and grilled cheese and then hit the 2-Screen Movie Theatre for a showing of something ridiculously violent and action-packed with a somewhat thin, yet smarmy sub-plot of “love”. I would enjoy myself and believed then I had found the perfect antidote for the no real and yet many reasons for my Holiday or Un-Holiday Christmas celebration. Looking back on it all, it was probably just an easier way to not miss Christmas Trees. Maybe.
But there was this one Christmas. This one Christmas Eve that I got called in early to work at the Bar. The Manager believed we’d get a big crowd, although it was snowing as all get out. The snow was so heavy it muffled the constant rushing sounds of the City of Chicago. Walking from the Red Line to the Bar, the streets were hushed under the constant snow with the exception of a few car horns. I went in to work with my friend Nikki. She had picked up the shift when the Manager offered it to her in an effort to make extra money that night as she had two Kids under ten. She was trying to pull enough cash together to pay some bills & get some last-minute Christmas presents for her Kids. It had been a tough year for her, for all of us.
And despite what the Manager thought, it was slow that night. The snow kept the people inside with the exception of a few of our Regulars. Ms Donna, this petite, older Black woman, who came in like clockwork every evening after work for her Seagram’s and Seven-up Cocktails and to listen to G Love & Special Sauce on the Jukebox. Our pal, Dave, who always seemed perpetually joyous, was there. He lived around the corner in a high rise and claimed the Bar as his Living Room. He ambled in, snow covering his thick, dark blonde hair, shaking the snowflakes from his wool pea coat and plaid scarf, his arms wide open and shouting “Ladies! My favorite Ladies!” He kissed Ms Donna on her cheek and sat next to her on his favorite, wobbly bar-stool, his ruddy complexion even more ruddy from the cold outside. And then the Serbian and Croatian Maintenance guys for all the fancy buildings in the Gold Coast wandered in. They would come in every evening, in their heavy work coveralls & their huge, zip-line, key rings which sounded like a thousand tiny, clanging bells as they walked into the Bar. Boy, I’ll tell ya, those keys held more secrets on the wealthy Folk in the Gold Coast than most Cemeteries. But that’s really another story…
The evening grew later, slowed down to a quiet crawl and the snow sped its pace up a little more as our Regulars left the place, one by one, with some Merry Christmases slurred just a touch, to make them sound almost romantic. Then it was just Nikki and I and one person left at the Bar, sitting somewhat in the center, with their back to the rear wall, facing the street. The Bar’s floor to ceiling windows overlooked the snow as it came down, sometimes in dense, swirling waves and every once in a while, the old streetlights would bounce & refract off the whiteness, spreading a Kaleidoscope of brilliant light across the walls of the darkened Bar. I didn’t remember this person walking into the barroom. It was as though he had been there all along, almost forever, dressed in all black, drinking Scotches on the Rocks, and Nikki and I took turns refilling the rocks and the dark amber liquid, ringing each Cocktail separately, as the patron hadn’t wanted to start a tab.
In between the Cocktail refreshing and the re-stocking of the beer cases and liquor racks, I could see that Nikki became more stressed as she talked to me about her Kids and this Christmas and the Bills and the snow, which kept falling, oblivious to us or the stranger sitting dead center in our Bar. I kept trying to remember when this man had come in but couldn’t, couldn’t even picture them walking in and sitting down or when it was they ordered their first drink. It was almost as if I had always known their drink to be Scotch, Rocks and they were a Regular, but they weren’t. With the exception of him looking towards either Nikki or me and simply saying “Another, please”, this man spoke not one other word.
I tried to assuage Nikki, tried to tell her it would be OK, and she would make it through the Bills and this Christmas, but I felt my words weren’t really helping her. I then decided to give her the lion share of the night’s tips, knowing I would be working the next night, knowing my Bills were OK (this one time) and knowing my acquiescence of the fact I would never have the difficulty of raising two kids under ten. I was in a relatively good spot that night. My Un-Holiday Christmas would soon be over for another year.
It was then getting close to closing time, we were a Two O’clock Bar, and I refilled our quiet patron’s Scotch, Rocks, letting him know we were closing shortly. He only nodded his understanding and held his glass up to Nikki and me in a kind of toast, or maybe a blessing, sans the Holy Water. He handed me $20 for his last Cocktail and I went to the register to ring him up and get his change. As I handed him back his change, I told Nikki to go ahead and count out our tips and to just leave me enough so I could grab a Taxi home. She was apprehensive about it briefly, but I told her it was all good and she had done stuff for me in the past so “For God’s Sake, take it already!” She smiled and relaxed for the first time that night, grabbing the Tip Jar & then making us each an end of shift Cocktail. Her, a Rocks Glass filled with Jägermeister, no Rocks, with a bottle of Stella Artois back and me, a Double Jack Daniels & Diet Coke. I turned around to tell our Quieter-Than-The-Snow-Falling patron “Thank you” and that we’d be closing up shop for the night, but he was gone. Just like that. Neither of us saw him leave the Bar. And we questioned how that was possible as the Bar wasn’t that big. I told Nikki that maybe he had walked out through the back & had cut through the alleyway out to the street. I checked the rear door, but it was locked. The proverbial hair stood up on the nape of my neck as I turned to tell Nikki the impossibility of the patron leaving through the back. The padlock was locked on the inside frame and neither of us had used the alley door the entire night.
And Nikki. She was a slender blonde with an almost alabaster complexion. She stood there staring at me, paler than I’ve ever seen her, shaking almost, behind the bar, in front of where the man had been sitting. She had cleared his Cocktail glass and found two folded napkins, trapped underneath the glass. One napkin had her name on it and the other had mine, just like that. Written on the inside of Nikki’s napkin was “As they say, life isn’t a dress rehearsal. Don’t worry so much, just live” and the inside of the napkin contained five, crisp, 100-dollar bills. She handed me the napkin addressed to me and grabbed my free hand, hers so icy cold and shaky. I opened mine up & a crisp 100-dollar bill fell out. Inside, the patron had written, “Always do good work”. Nikki downed her Jager & started to cry. I sat on the stool the patron had warmed for the better part of the night, sipping my double and stared out of the huge barroom windows at the swirling mass of snow as it bounced and refracted off the old streetlights, filling the darkness of the barroom with its slow, quiet hush of Kaleidoscopic light.
And I squinted, just a little bit.
Elizabeth Garcia was brilliantly lucky enough to wander into a gracious circle of New Orleans Writers many years ago, starting with the Mad Poets’ Express at Dragon’s Den & Flora’s Café. For the last 18 ½ years, she has been considered one of ‘dem people’, working for the City of NO. Throughout this time, her appreciation of the architecture of the buildings & the houses & the people has grown into an almost love. Several of her Poems & Writings have been published within the Bacopa Literary Review, Big Bridge New Orleans Anthology Sturm Und Drang, & Sinister Goat Review.