A Chicago Christmas Story
Christmas Eve is always a strange time to be out. Much of it really takes place inside, around lights and trees, in houses or in church, with that combination of dark and light which is only found in the heights and recesses of a church building. But outside, it is strange and lonely, and deserted. The "L" and busses are also strangely empty. That is true even though people must get to various homes and parties, and to churches. Nevertheless, it is so. Forlorn looking drivers and trainmen take people around Chicago on the cold night.
Except, of course, a driver I knew named Lieberman. "Christmas is all the same to me...". He was always jolly on Christmas, driving his Gentile riders... . "Merry Christmas, folks!" he'd say as they got off-unless they, too, were Jewish. "What are you doing out on a cold night?" is what they'd get, with the same smile. But, most of the people running the CTA had the sad look of those who wished they were elsewhere, to be in their lighted homes or their bright and dark churches.
The cold caught my cheek as I came out the door of my building. I was bound, first to a family gathering and thence to church for the late service. It was a snowier Christmas Eve than there had been in several years, and it felt good to look up and see the snow eddying around corners and chasing down the streets in waves and currents. It was snowing as I walked. The snow was sticking to the wool of my topcoat, and as I saw in a window, to my beret a well. The street, lonely at most times, seemed even more lonely that night, and quieter than usual: snowy nights can muffle sound, I thought.
The woman at the Morse "L" station took my fare and returned the change with a "Merry Christmas". "Merry Christmas to you, too, ma'am," I said. "Thanks, but I'm Jewish," she said with a smile.
The tracks were covered with fresh snow, almost to the height of the rails. "It is quiet unto still up here," I said to myself as I looked around. A train would be a long time coming. I heard two, one in each direction as I was walking to the station. There was plenty of time to enjoy the beauty of the night: the quiet; the softly falling, occasionally swirling snow; the cold.
A man and a woman walked along Glenwood while I looked out on the night. I noticed that they were moving relatively slowly. The woman looked very pregnant. Her coat was larger than I thought she would have chosen to wear had she not been pregnant. Their clothes were not fancy, at least their overcoats weren't, but, I thought, it's cold, and their "best" coats likely weren't as warm. Besides, her "best coat" was very likely not fitting just now. I looked around to the north, up the tracks in that involuntary way that people waiting for their trains do, and when I looked down at the street again, the couple was gone. I heard steps on the stairs, and when I looked it that direction I saw that it was indeed the couple I'd been watching. Just then, the light of the train appeared, coming around the bend, and I looked for the place where the two car train would stop . As the train eased into the station, I found himself by the front doors of the front car. I stood there, not getting in, watching the couple move to the rear doors of the second car.
"Get in, man, I won't leave them, not on Christmas Eve".
"That you, McMann?"
"Yeah, Tall Paul. Get in. You're making these people-well, me, anyway--cold." I did as bidden. I looked through the doors between the cars and could see the man and woman. They were young. She was Black, and I presumed that the man was, too, though his face was hidden. I looked forward again, and watched the city go by, thinking the disconnected thoughts that I always thought when I rode the "L". Sometimes, they were about whatever was on my mind, sometimes about the things and people I'd see from the "L". I always thought about Wrigley Field, and summer days as I rode by, and how the place was all quiet in the Fall these days, now that the Bears had moved to Soldier Field...
I got off at Belmont to get the northbound Ravenswood. As I got off, I heard McMann say, "Merry Christmas, man!" "You, too." I moved toward his window and we shook hands. "How'd you get Christmas Eve?"
"Long story." The train moved out, and as it did, I caught a glimpse of the young couple through the window. They were on my side of the train. She looked very weary.
"You going north?" I heard the conductor of the Ravenswood train, stopped at the other platform.
"Hurry on over. We're leaving in a minute". I ran to the stairs and across the overpass.
"Going to see family?" the conductor asked.
"Yes, and to church later, back up that way," I answered, pointing back up north.
The Ravenswood train rumbled over points, squealed around turns, and crossed a lighted Clark Street, and thence on its journey through its neighbourhoods, turning to go north along Ravenswood Avenue, parallel with the Chicago and Northwestern tracks. Everything was dark but the cross streets. As a rider of the North-South line, I found the Ravenswood's many turns disconcerting. On this dark night, this Christmas Eve, I thought them so as well, but I found that the two people I'd got on the train with at Morse intruding into my usual thoughts, and into my thoughts about the family dinner I was on the way to.
"Merry Christmas!" I said to the conductor as I left.
"Same to you. Get in and keep warm!"
The large apartment was warm and bright, and I was glad to be getting inside and getting my topcoat off.
"Drink?" said Alec in his Home Counties English.
"Yes. A nice whiskey on a cold night."
"Warm you right up."
The time was convivial, as ever. As is the case at these events, people gathered in a large room at first, and then drifted into other places. On my way to see about another drink, I found myself looking out at the night. I was surprised by a voice next to me.
"What d'you see out there?"
"Nothing, really...I was just thinking about something that happened earlier tonight on the "L" while I was on the way over here."
"What was that?"
I told him the story.
"A pregnant woman and a man out on Christmas Eve..."
Following his thoughts, I said, "That's what I was thinking, and that's what I've been thinking all evening."
"Certainly something appropriate about it"
"Yeah..." I looked into the night some more, watching the snow flakes drift down silently. "Yeah, but women are pregnant all over town and all over the world-on any night."
"Still, Christmas Eve..."
"Yeah, you're right." He walked off to join the party; I stayed looking out the window for a few more minutes, and then went back, myself.
Dinner was served, and afterward, we returned to the front room for an after dinner drink. After a few more minutes, I got up, looking at my watch, saying that I had best get going to church. Goodbyes and final holiday greetings, and I was down the stairs and into the night again, as happy to find myself in the cold night air as I was to find myself in the warmth of the large apartment I'd just left.
I got to the "L" station before I knew it. I was still preoccupied with the scene earlier in the evening. Indeed, I really hadn't meant to take the "L" at all, but to go up to Foster and get the bus. But, the "L" seemed to beckon, and so I got on the train, bound for Belmont. After all, I liked the "L" better, anyway, even if it was a bit out of the way.
I was surprised to see Melvin McMann on the North-South train again.
"No. To Church; getting off at Berwyn."
"It's been a strange night," he said, as I sat down next to him in the car, empty but for the two of us. Another person got on at Addison.
"You remember the couple who got on with you?"
"The pregnant woman and the guy? I've been thinking about them all night. Where'd they get off?"
"That's just it. It's a long story. You only going to Berwyn?"
"Yeah, but I'm going the rest of the way after church. About one o'clock. Will you be done by then?"
"Yeah, but I gotta go home. Hey, I might ride up and down with the new guys. I got nothin' on tonight."
"That's a longer story."
"Tell you what: If I see you after you're off, you can come to my place. I'm all by myself after church."
"I'll look out for you. You get off at Morse, right?"
Church was as it always was: beautiful, wondrously mysterious in the light and the dark, the light in the night, the Bleak Midwinter lighted by hope. The light took me out into the night. Snow was falling, drifting down in large flakes. Enough snow had fallen for me to make footprints as I made my way to the "L" station. The wait for a train was a long one, of course, with so few trains running. At last, I could just see the light of the train as it came around the small bend before Lawrence. The quiet of the night made the train's approach unusually loud.
I looked up and down the car and into the next one to see if Melvin McMann was on the train, but I was pretty sure that he'd have finished work by this time, and would be up at Morse.
I was up somewhat before the end of the curve coming out of Loyola and waiting at the doors. Though I looked up and down the platform as we reached Morse, I didn't really expect to see Melvin. It was a cold night, and I expected that he'd be down in the station house, and in fact, I heard his voice in conversation with the agent as I came down the stairs.
Melvin had his suitcase with him. "Did you go all the way out south to pack a suitcase?" I asked.
"No, man. I had it packed and ready and took it to work. It was up in the cab all night under the seat." I was about to say something when he smiled and said, "I told you it was a long story".
"Well, tell it to me on the way over to my place. It's only a couple of blocks." We shuffled through the deepening snow, not saying much. We seemed to be in awe of the still and beautiful night-or very tired. We turned the corner, and went east on Greenleaf.
"So, what's the story?" I asked, pointing to the suitcase.
"I wasn't even thinking about my story. I was thinking about what went on on my train tonight."
We were at the door of my building. I had my keys out as we got into the vestibule. The inner door opened and we plodded up to the third floor, and my other key got us into my apartment.
"Thanks. You hungry?"
"I wouldn't turn anything down."
I went back to the kitchen and started some eggs.
"You want a beer?"
"Yeah. That'd be great."
I handed him a bottle and a glass, and I went back to the kitchen.
"Well?" I said as I returned with a large plate of scrambled eggs, some toast, Christmas baking, in front of Melvin, still in his CTA uniform.
"Well, what?" he said, half smiling; then "Oh, yeah.
"Actually, my story's simple. Louise-my wife-left with the kids. She went to her mother's-so her note says-in Arkansas. I left-not knowing where I would go-just 'cause I couldn't stand to be home. I knew things weren't good, but I-well, I guess I wasn't paying enough attention to things."
"You can stay here for a few days, Melvin, or a little longer-as long as you like, though I don't think the couch will be that comfortable for very long. Sorry I only have a one-bedroom place."
"Thanks. And that's okay. I'll have to go home some time, anyway. You know, I even left a note in case she comes back. I don't think she will, but you don't know. After all, I've seen some interesting things over the years...Well, but this story's got nothing on what I saw tonight."
"You were saying. What happened?"
"You remember the brother and sister-the pregnant woman-that got on at Morse?"
"Yes. You know, I thought about them all night: at the party, at church, on the way-all the time. Everywhere."
"Well you might. She had her baby in my train!"
"Yeah. It's a fact!"
"What'd you guys do?"
"We called for help. Fortunately, there was an old woman on the train. She seemed to know what to do."
"Start from the top, man!-and here's another beer."
"Thanks. Beer's really good tonight."
"Where'd this happen? But, wait! Start at the beginning."
"You just said that," he laughed, "I'm trying! Here goes.
"Okay. They got on at Morse, but you knew that. As poor as they looked, they were probably heading for Cook County Hospital. But, they didn't get that far! We just got out of Belmont when she lets out a scream. Her husband says 'Is it coming?' and she says 'yes! NOW!' He says, 'Shit! What are we going to do?' Then, this lady-the older lady I told you about-comes back to look and yells, 'Stop the train!' I was going to say something, when she said, ' Son, I said stop this train! Do I have to do it myself?' and she reached up for the cherry. I said 'Okay, okay!' and ran to the cab and banged for all I was worth. Dunbar says, 'What's up?' I said, 'There's a woman having a baby, man. Stop the train!' And he does. We were a block or so from Diversey. Then, the old woman took charge. Dunbar said she reminded him of his grandmother, 'And you always did what she said, man, or else,' he said. So there we were. She told Dunbar to get into contact with someone, and went to work.
"'You a doctor?' " I said. 'No,' she said, 'but I've delivered a lot of babies in my time.'
"Soon, she had the rest of the passengers around. She ran the men off to the next car, and told them to give her their tee shirts or undershirts. Nobody said a thing, and started stripping down in the next car. I came back with three or four shirts. I remembered that I had my suitcase with me, and got out my underwear and a towel I had. The poor woman having the baby was on a seat. 'I thought you did this lying down,' I said. The old woman said that this was more natural, and used gravity. The other ladies held the woman and stroked her head, and helped mop up and all. Her husband stood by, doing as he was told. I really didn't see much, because the men were told to stay out of the way. And, Dunbar was right: you'd best do what that lady told you to do. She ran me off to the other car.
"Soon, the woman waved us back to her car. We heard the baby crying and the women cheering. The car all the sudden seemed brighter. I don't know what it was. The old lady made the mother as comfortable as she could, trying to get her feet up on the side seat in the front. We gave her coats to warm up with.
"Two of the guys on the train were a couple of Mexican guys who ride around on the trains playing Christmas carols. They got their flute and drum going, and we sang carols. Then the old lady looks at me and Dunbar and starts singing Go Tell It On The Mountain with us and some others joining in, singing harmony, with tears in our eyes. When we were done, she said to us, 'Now, you'd best get this train up to the station'. We did, and there were medical people waiting.
"'Now,' said the woman, 'I know there are a few hospitals nearby, so you take these people somewhere close. Believe me when I say that I'll find out if you take them all the way to County, and I'll make it real warm for someone!'
"They couldn't 'yes ma'am' fast enough, and told her that they'd take the people to the hospital up at Wellington. 'I'll see that you do,' and she got off with one of the young men with her. He 'yes ma'amed,' too; I think he had a grandmother like that, himself. We gave them money to get back on the train.
"We explained the whole thing to the supervisor, of course, and we stopped downtown to get some water and a mop and did a quick wash. We were running real late by this time, but knew we'd be able to get close to back on schedule when we started back north.
"Nothing else happened the rest of the night except that we sort of roped off the area where it all happened, partly because we didn't get everything cleaned up, but, well, you know, it was like we didn't want to disturb the area. We did clean it up better when we got to Howard. So Dunbar and I finally finished our run, and I came down here to wait for you, and Dunbar went home."
We sat quietly, looking out the window at the falling snow.
"Merry Christmas, Melvin."
"Same to you, and thanks."
I went to look for some spare bedding.
Melvin had Christmas Day off, so we were able to sleep pretty late. We awoke to a grey day. I was due to make a long trek to a family event, but I called my mother and sketched the situation to her. She agreed that it would be best to stay and spend the day with Melvin. I had seen my mother the night before, and though I always liked the trip to a further round of family visiting, I couldn't leave Melvin on his own in a strange neighbourhood on Christmas Day. Of course, it meant that we didn't have a big dinner, but we managed with what we had.
"I'll make this up to you, man," said Melvin, "I'll take you out tomorrow".
"Don't mention it. I only wish I had more fitting grub for Christmas. This isn't the kind of feast I'd lay on for a friend on a holiday under normal circumstances."
"But these aren't normal circumstances. I'm staying at your place, and besides, I've got nothing else today."
"That's true. But, except for the time I would be spending at my aunt's in the country, I'd be here all alone. Now, I have someone to talk to."
We finished the meal over which this conversation floated, a sort of hybrid between a large breakfast and an ample lunch. I proposed going walking by the lake, and just around, to see what few decorations were up. The snow from the night before had piled up to about six inches or so, and the snow ploughs were just finishing up their work on Sheridan Road.
"You know," said Melvin, as he watched the truck with a blade go by, "CTA guys complain about working holidays, but think of those guys they don't even get any notice. If it snows, they get called up. A cousin of mine drives one of those, and he can get a call anytime."
We made our way to the Lake, which was grey-green, and starting to freeze by the shore, and was thick and slushy, lapping against the already-iced rocks.
"This is a strange place this time of year," said Melvin, "so quiet".
"Partly, it's the fact that there's no one around, of course, but there are no leaves rustling in the trees, and I always think that snow dampens noise. And the water is so thick, if not just plain frozen, that it doesn't make any noise."
We were walking south, and soon ran out of beach, so we went back through the streets. We found ourselves on Glenwood, next to the "L". The wind was picking up, and as we were going into it we pulled our collars up around our faces.
We said little as we walked. Finally, though, Melvin said, "You still thinking about the people with the baby?".
"Yes, I am."
"Hey, it's early. Let's go down and see if we can visit them at the hospital."
"Okay. You think we could?"
"Sure. After all, I was the conductor on the train the baby was born on."
"And you have your CTA coat on to prove it. Here's the station--why not?"
The train came sooner than we expected. Melvin knew the crew, and told them about the night before. They had heard about it already, though they enjoyed the first-hand account.
We got off at Belmont and walked, as there was no Ravenswood train on Christmas Day. It didn't take too long to get the hospital down at Wellington.
I said, "I hope they're still here. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that they got booted on to County".
"Not with that old woman last night. Probably took charge here the same way she did on the train."
"Say, are we the shepherds or the wise men?"
"What do you-oh, I get it. I don't know. There are only two of us, so we're probably shepherds. Then again, we are a couple of wise guys!"
"I guess so...but there were probably other visitors at Bethlehem, and certainly a midwife! They wouldn't have needed to mention her, though."
"And she'd've been just like the lady on the train."
We got to the hospital. Finding the mother wasn't difficult. We weren't the only visitors, either: Dunbar was in the hall.
"Hey, McMann, come to see the little guy our train brought into the world? Now, the brother and sister are in the room there. The baby's name is Joshua Samuel. I've been already. They'll be glad to se you, too. Hey, they're bringing in the baby! Let's go!"
We met the woman who'd done the midwife duty the night before. The man and woman were glad to see Melvin, and welcomed me, too. "I got off the train right before the main event".
The woman was well, but looked tired and still a bit dazed. Her husband looked tired, too and just like a man who'd had a long night the night before. They both glowed, though. They told us that the baby was well, too. We all three opened our wallets, and brought out twenties.
"Not exactly gold, myrrh, and frankincense, but, please take this," said McMann, speaking for all of us.
"Thanks," said the father, "You know, someone actually took on the hospital bills."
"Hey, that's great!" we said, "and Merry Christmas!" We left at the bidding of a formidable nurse, who was bringing the baby and telling everyone to leave. We only glimpsed little Joshua Samuel, who was well bundled, and just barely awake. "Merry Christmas, little guy!" we said as we passed.
Christmas Day was drawing in. We walked back to the "L" at Belmont. We shouted goodbye and Merry Christmas to Dunbar, as he got ready to board the south bound train on the other platform. As we waited for our train, Melvin said, "Wonder what'll become of the little fellow."
"I don't know. You never do, I guess...his life will be like other kids' lives, I s'pose."
"Yeah, I think so, too, but I think he'll be great someday-great in a small way, at least."
"I've known a lot of people like that...."
"...Me, too. My dad...a neighbour we had once....That woman who delivered the little guy."
" 'Great in a small way' may be better than being great in a 'great' way." Our train had come, and we got in out of the cold.
The train squealed around the curve coming out of Sheridan, and ran by the Graceland Cemetery, which was darkening along with the day. We saw headlights and streetlights as we crossed streets, along with the lights of the few open businesses. The city went by, as it does on the "L", close up to buildings, far away from such landmarks as you can see; streets crossed; people seen living their lives, oblivious to the passing train, some looking up as we passed; lighted windows flying by...
The dark, short day was well and truly night when we got to Morse. We walked back to my place in silence. When we got home, I looked into supper. I found that I had several beers left, and offered one to Melvin.
"No, thanks, man,. You got coffee or something hot?"
" I drink tea, but I keep coffee for guys like you."
"No, I'll have tea with you."
"I make up some special tea for this time of year, with orange peel and cloves. You'll like it."
"Mind if I have a cup with you before I get food figured out?"
"Yeah. I'm not all that hungry yet-but, hey, this is your house, man!"
"I'm not all that hungry yet, either. I will be soon enough, though, after all that walking around."
After sipping his tea, Melvin said, "This is good. Never drank too much tea. My grandmother likes it, though. She'd like this."
We were still inclined to be quiet and reflective. The apartment was so quiet that we could hear the "L" as it crossed Greenleaf. After the train had gone by, Melvin said, "Well, it's down to Englewood and back and forth again tomorrow".
"What time? Late afternoon again?"
"Something like that. I enjoy a run at that time of the day. I think that was part of my troubles with Louise, though."
"Well, we'll get to the hardware store tomorrow and get a couple of keys made. Been needing spares, myself, anyway."
Around seven, I made supper. We talked and had a couple of those beers I found earlier, and then turned in. I had time off until after New Year's Day, but had some things to do around home.
We had batched together for a few days when Melvin came home excited.
"My wife called work, and left a number. Can I use the phone?"
"Yes, and I'll cut out for a night cap or something at the tavern, if you'd like the privacy."
"I can't run you out of your own place, man!"
"It's cool. They're open till two. That'll give you some time. Or, I can go down and see if the Exit's still open I might run into my pal Bernstein there. Haven't seen him in a while, though he lives in the next building."
I did run into Al Bernstein on his way out of the No Exit, but he said he'd go back in for a few minutes. We talked of all the crazy things we always talked about: mostly Al's surreal take on current affairs. Joe finally kicked us out, and we wandered back wondering why, as we lived in buildings next to each other, we never seemed to see one another.
Melvin was off the phone and smiling when I got in. "I guess I'm losing a roommate," I said.
"Yeah, and thanks for everything. I found out that it wasn't as bad I thought with Louise, and that she was real worried when I wasn't home. I'll be going back out south tomorrow, but I told Louise that I wanted to do something nice for you, so I'd come to see you tomorrow while I had the day off. I owe you several meals, so let me take you somewhere."
"Okay, if you really insist. And, sometime, I'd like to meet Louise, and your kids."
Melvin left for work and took his things with him. Christmas Season was waning, and so I was feeling a little blue, anyway. It seemed so empty to come back to the apartment and find myself alone. Fortunately, my Christmas tree was still up, and that took away some of the loneliness. Melvin came that afternoon, and we went to a nice place and talked.
"Been quite a last few days, hasn't it," I said.
"Yeah. Strangest Christmas I've ever had...but maybe the best, too. Louise and I are more or less straightened out; her mother sent her back, by the way."
"Maybe her mother knows a good man when she sees one."
"Maybe so," Melvin chuckled.
January was cold, bright, and forlorn as ever. The glow in the Bleak Midwinter nights faded with the removal of lights, decorations, Christmas trees, and ornaments. January was long-- as it always was-and by the third week or so, Christmas Eve and all that happened seemed a long way off. Melvin started working on the Ravenswood, and so I didn't see him quite so often as I had. Sometimes, we'd wave through the windows of our passing trains. When we got the chance to talk, though, there would always be at least a mention of that wonderful Christmas Eve.