A Christmas Saved
by Neal Gillen
In the fall of 1954 I had enlisted in the Navy and was waiting for the notice to report for duty as December rolled around. The holiday parties seemed endless as I prepared for what would be my last Christmas at home in Woodside, Queens, until 1958.
Early on Christmas Eve, I visited with Dave Richardson and his father in their Matthew’s Flats apartment on 52nd Street near Skillman Avenue, where we sat at the kitchen table and drank glasses of Bushmills Irish whiskey that Mr. Richardson generously poured.
Dave’s father was the superintendent and chief maintenance man for a number of the apartment houses on their block. A likeable individual and a good observer of people, he provided fatherly advice about my future, urging me to have the best Christmas I could manage with my family. “Son, your life will never be the same once you leave for the Navy.”
Mother was beside herself when I arrived home about ten that night. Dad, who promised to buy a Christmas tree, had staggered into our apartment dragging behind him a sorry excuse for a tree.
“Look at that tree, Neal. Just look at that tree.”
“Mom, he has one eye, he’s drunk, and it’s late in the evening. What’d you expect him to bring home at the last minute?”
To this day, including trees put out for collection in late January, I have never seen a scrawnier tree more barren of needles.
“I’ll get a decent tree,” I said.
“I hope you haven’t been drinking?”
I ignored her remark as I headed out the door of our apartment on 55th Street and walked up to Giannini’s Garden Center on 58th Street. No luck there. From Giannini’s I set out on a long journey heading first for Northern Boulevard, then over to Broadway, all the way down to the Ditmars Boulevard-bound elevated line on 31st Street. From there, I walked over to 30th Avenue then up the hill to Steinway Street and down Steinway to 31st Avenue, visiting the empty lots and shuttered stores where Christmas trees were sold in previous weeks, only to find them all empty. I had covered every spot where I had seen trees for sale over the years. There were no more trees for sale. Dejected, I began the trek home.
I had walked more than two miles on my futile search when I started down 31st Avenue. Just beyond six corners, where Newtown Road crosses 43rd Street and 31st Avenue, I noticed a few trees propped against the wall of an apartment house. It was next to the empty lot at the corner, just across the street from P.S. 10 on 45th Street. A number of my friends, including Bobby Collins and Brendan Malone lived down the street. Despite the hour, people were coming and going into the walk-up apartments adjacent to the lot.
“Are these trees for sale?” I asked a man unloading his car.
“The guy packed up and left about 9:30. ‘See you next year,’ he said to me. So, I guess he left them.”
“Thanks. I’ve been looking high and low for a tree.”
“Merry Christmas. Pick a good one, son.”
To my surprise, I found a decent tree and hauled it home. By 1:30 a.m., Mother and my sisters, Carol, Rose and Patricia, had completed decorating the tree. It may have been the nicest tree we ever enjoyed.
The next morning, Dad was proud of the tree he thought he had purchased. Remembering Mr. Richardson’s advice, I complimented him on his selection. Mother, though reluctantly, did the same, while my sisters and younger brother Jimmy managed to hold back their laughter. Thanks to my intrepid journey the previous night and our better judgment that morning, the family managed to enjoy a Christmas devoid of mayhem.
I had saved Christmas. Well, at least for most of the day – until the usual arguments started at dinner time.
Neal Gillen is the author of eight novels: Sugar Time, Capitol Punishment, Dinner In Bordeaux, Kitty’s Rules, Slamming The Close, The Night Clerks, Altar Boy, Lonely No More, and two memoirs, 1954 Adventures in New York, and Moments of Truth. His most recent short story, “Northwest to Huguenot,” was published in the 2015 issue of the Delmarva Review.