We were greeted at the door of what I thought was a posh house “up” in New Dorp by a stunning young woman with long, straight, shiny, jet-black hair. We would have recognized her as a Morticia look-alike from the Addams Family, but that television show wouldn’t debut for another two years.
It was 6:45 on a frigid Thursday night, the 15th of November, 1962. I was 13 years old but I looked more like 10. My mother had dragged me to this unlikely doorstep and I was not looking forward to this at all! She had read an ad in the Staten Island Advance that there was a choral group forming to sing Christmas carols on Christmas morning in some random hospital—not that I was a singer, mind you, and I didn’t like this one bit! I could not believe the colossal stupidity of such an idea and I was outraged that my compliance was not negotiable.
We were early–the first ones there. My mother was instantly enthralled by Carole, as was I. Carole sweetly explained that she took care of her elderly mother, that she loved music–especially Christmas music–and that she was excited to start this new project. My mother happily left me on the doorstep with Carole, promising to pick me up in two hours. I couldn’t believe that my “ya gotta get up bright and early in the morning if you wanna to pull the wool over my eyes” mother completely missed the fact that Carol either was, or looked just like, a beatnik–and I loved it!
Inside the house, the dimly-lit living room was decorated to the nines—a huge, glittering Christmas tree stood sentinel over a long table sumptuously spread with cold cuts, breads, rolls, crackers, hors d’oeuvres, condiments, cookies and cakes. At the far end were wine bottles and a big tub of ice with bottles of beer and every kind of soda you could imagine—grape, orange, Coke, root beer, cream, even sarsaparilla and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda. Next to the tub stood an army of sturdy glasses for soda, fancy wine glasses and heavy beer mugs, mouth down on a fine damask tablecloth. If there were any jelly glasses in this house, it was only because there was still jelly in them.
Carole led me over to her ancient mother who was propped up in a straight-back chair against the far wall of the living room where she could observe, or not, the proceedings of the evening. “Ma?” she shouted, “This is Gloria—she’s my first caroler! Say hello, Ma!” She didn’t respond, so I stammered that it was nice to meet her, and I parked myself in the empty chair next to her. She stared vacantly ahead, with those soft blue nebulous kitten eyes you only see in newborn babies and very old people, one clawed hand clutching the other clawed hand. Carole continued to talk to me while fussing over the table. A tall, handsome, clean-cut, smiling blond man lumbered in from the kitchen to dump more ice into the aluminum tub, and introduced himself to me as “Jack, Carole’s boyfriend.” Such nice, beautiful people! They didn’t even seem to notice that I was just an awkward, homely kid in bad clothes!
As if on cue, the doorbell rang, and there were flurries of attractive, well-dressed arrivals, blowing in with an arctic wind every two or three minutes. Within a short time, the parlor was crowded with gaily chattering girls and guys, all of whom seemed to be at least as old as Carol and Jack–somewhere between 18 and 25–and every last one of them exceptionally cool, except for the old lady and me.
The place was buzzing with laughter and conviviality as everyone ate, drank, smoked, and joked. I was too self-conscious to eat anything, not that anyone would have noticed, but I did get up and grab a few cigarettes from a cut glass box on top of the piano. I re-manned my post by the old lady, and proceeded to chain smoke and make one-sided small talk with her as I did. Once in a while, Carole would smile at me and flash a conspiratorial wink my way. I think she was happy that I was paying attention to her mother.
The joint was really jumping! One cool guy after another would commandeer the piano and bang out a raucous tune, each one sounding just like Jerry Lee Lewis hell-firing the goodness-gracious out of “Great Balls of Fire,” or Ray Charles rocking “What’d I Say,” or Chuck Berry duck-walking “Johnny B. Goode,” or Elvis belting out the pelvis-thrusting “Jailhouse Rock,” or Little Richard dementedly screeching “Good Golly Miss Molly,” but the song that really brought the house down was “409,” all revved up just like the Beach Boys. Most of the carolers were thronged around the piano, singing along, providing harmony where appropriate, clapping their hands and stomping their feet. Others were in the middle of the floor dancing, just like they were on American Bandstand. I half expected to see Dick Clark. Who were these people? Down at the beach where I lived, I didn’t know anyone who had a piano, let alone anyone who knew how to play one. I was in heaven.
Finally, at 8:30, Carole announced that we were going to practice Christmas carols. I dinched my cigarette and, at Carole’s direction, took my place between her and Jack. We sang Silent Night, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Angels We Have Heard on High, Joy to the World, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas—this time, no piano. We sounded pretty good. How could we not? There must have been 25 or 30 of us, most with good, strong, melodious voices, sounding just like the angels we were singing about.
My mother didn’t smell the cigarette smoke on me since she always reeked of cigarette smoke herself. She showed up, honking out “shave and a haircut, two bits!” right at nine. I reluctantly left and ran through the cold out to my mother’s backfiring jalopy. “So, Glo! How was it?” I told my mother how much fun I had and how nice everyone was. I described the food, the tree, the house, the music and the old lady, omitting the part about the alcohol, the cigarettes, that I was the only kid there, and the fact that Jack and Carole were living together, or “shacked up,” as my mother would have called it. We sang Christmas carols on the way home. We were both delighted that my mother had had the presence of mind to find such a wonderful thing for me to do that would surely earn me a place in heaven, or at least start me up a tab.
I anxiously awaited every Thursday night. Each rehearsal was like a re-run of the first one, except that I was trying to act, look and dress a little cooler each time, and each time not succeeding; luckily, the illusion was good enough. I adored Carole and Jack, the bohemian holiday revelers, the music, the cigarettes, and the Christmas lights, and I was even becoming fond of the old lady with the soft blue nebulous kitten eyes. For the first time in my life, I would get sad thinking of Christmas since it would be the end of this enchanting experience.
Carole had announced at our last rehearsal that we would all meet at her house on Saturday, December 22nd, at 10:00 am with pillowcases. We were going to go up and down New Dorp Lane to solicit donations of merchandise from the shop keepers for the patients in the hospital for whom we would sing our Christmas carols. I was the only one who showed up. Undeterred by the absence of our fellow revelers, Jack and Carole locked the old lady in the house, and we took off in Jack’s car for New Dorp Lane. I was amazed at the generosity of the shop keepers! They gave us cartons of cigarettes, box matches, real razors, shaving cream, shaving cups and brushes, faux tortoise shell combs in velvet sleeves, manicure sets, stationery sets, fountain pens in jewelers boxes, cloth handkerchiefs, socks, undershirts, wallets, picture frames, music boxes, after shave lotions, playing cards, boxes of chocolates and dried fruits, mirrors, etc. Jack hauled two pillowcases full of gifts and Carole and I each hauled one. It was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas!
Christmas morning! Today was the day we’d all been waiting for! It was a Tuesday, and my mother dropped me off at Carol’s at 9:00 am sharp. We waited until 9:30, but just like on Saturday, our fellow revelers were nowhere to be seen. Again, Carol and Jack locked the old lady in the house, and we took off in Jack’s car for Sailors’ Snug Harbor, the charity home and hospital for “aged, decrepit and worn-out seamen,” on the North Shore near the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.
Everyone was waiting for us. We schlepped our pillowcases from ward to ward, escorted by nurses and orderlies. Carole made a short speech each time, thanking them for letting us share their Christmas with them, hoping that they would enjoy the carols and for them to please join in. We caterwauled our way through our five carols, pathetically discordant in those drafty hospital wards, improving slightly with each ward, learning to fill those cavernous spaces with sound. Some of the residents chimed in, joyful at the prospect of receiving a gift in exchange for this auditory assault or perhaps just grateful for the opportunity to sing. The old sailors who were lucid enough grabbed our hands or hugged us and thanked us for the carols and the gifts, and some even cried, as we went from bed to bed, having them choose their own gift. We patted or hugged the ones who couldn’t respond, chose what we thought would be a nice gift, put it on their bed stand and wished them well.
We trudged through the snow back out to Jack’s car, and we hoarsely congratulated ourselves on our stellar performance. Just as we were getting pretty good at this, it was time to let it all go. Just like life.
Jack parked the car in front of my house. When I got out of the back seat, Jack and Carol both got out of the car and thanked me for being the best caroler of all. The three of us hugged each other as if for dear life, the three of us unexpectedly crying into each other’s shoulder. We promised to keep in touch.
I stood ankle-deep in the wet snow, my feet numbing and my heart aching, watching their car careen in and out of potholes down my street, the image burning indelibly into my memory. Even before their car turned that icy corner from Topping Street onto Cedar Grove, I knew I would never see them ever again—at least not in this lifetime.