“A White Christmas” by Stephen Graziano
This is dedicated to Rebecca Dorsey (1958–2012)
My nostrils sting from the cold and my toes are freezing as I wait for Rebecca in front of this haunted castle on Sixth Avenue. The fact that I stepped into a puddle of icy mud a moment ago has done little to brighten my mood. To make matters worse, I missed the weather report when I left the apartment earlier today, so was not privy to the fact that temperatures were going to plummet thirty degrees this evening and my thin suede jacket and light cotton shirt aren’t cutting it. We had enjoyed three days of Indian Summer which came to an abrupt end two hours ago. Now winds are whipping around buildings nearly knocking people off their feet. Steam escapes from covered manholes in the street as I observe pedestrians bundled up in scarves and wool hats, all, unlike me, dressed for weather. So, I stand shivering with one wet foot in front of this dilapidated building on the coldest Christmas Eve in memory.
There’s a prediction of snow tonight, which would make this the first White Christmas in the northeast in at least a decade. Despite the prediction, when I gaze up into the blackness above me, all I see are the half dozen or so stars that New Yorkers might be treated to on a clear night if they’re lucky.
People living in the northeast have suffered through many disappointing Christmas’s with the promise of snow, only to wake to gray bare snowless mornings. The truth is I really didn’t care either way as I was never a big fan of Christmas. Snow or no snow, I was disgusted with the commercialization of it all, which had turned me into an Ebenezer of sorts. When I was young, I’d go along with the family since my mother insisted on a full-blown Christmas extravaganza each year. But as I got older, I became more cynical over the holidays.
The building behind me, once a grand affair, has seen better days. It’s a tired old attempt at medieval architecture decked out with gargoyles and lions heads, all of which look sleep deprived with dark circles of soot under their eyes. The structure is eight stories high occupying nearly an entire block and its size makes it stand out in a neighborhood otherwise consisting of restaurants, vegetable markets and head shops.
Finally, Rebecca approaches bouncing cheerily up the avenue and gives me a peck on the cheek. She’s dressed appropriately in a long goose downed coat with wool mittens, a wool cap and ear muffs. She sees that I’m freezing.
“You could have waited inside.” She says grabbing me by the arm and leading me through the automatic doors. Several cynical responses flood my brain but after editing them in my head trying to find one that would hurt her feelings the least, I decide to remain silent as we enter this depressing place. The truth is, if left with the choice of fraternizing with singing students who are, no doubt, out of work actors, or standing in sub-freezing temperatures on a noisy city street underdressed and with one wet foot, I’ll pick the latter every time.
A week earlier, Rebecca convinced me to spend this evening with her singing teacher along with fellow students singing Carols for the residents at this Greenwich Village old folks’ home. I initially refused, but she begged me to go along with her and eventually wore me down.
Rebecca has dreams of becoming a cabaret singer. She has a beautiful voice but, having started singing one year earlier at the age of twenty-six, it was uncertain whether she’d be able to develop the strength to really belt out a song. Still, I encourage her and she sings her scales diligently every morning and shows real signs of improvement.
Her singing teacher, a native of Brooklyn, has taught her to pronounce some words in a questionable way. Before long, Rebecca, who descended from one of the First Families of Baltimore, and, to my mother’s delight, is a debutante, though she seems to shun her family’s blue blooded history, began singing songs like, “Cry Me A Rivuhhh”.
The lobby is poorly lit and less than inviting. There’s a damp odor of mildew despite the heat blasting from the radiators that line the dull green stucco walls. The paintings on the walls are faded and the furniture is what one might refer to as ‘neo-hideous’. The sofa is reminiscent of the chrome and vinyl seats we were subjected to on school buses.
Several students are milling about. We introduce ourselves to the group and exchange pleasantries while waiting for their teacher.
Before long, Stacy, the culprit who organized this soiree, arrives. She has a ready smile, albeit a bit toothy, and is dressed in a slightly flimsy “Miss Santa” outfit complete with fishnet stockings and a red Santa hat. She looks like, and very well may be moonlighting as a stripper at adult Christmas parties. After a few cordial hellos she distributes sheet music to us merry carolers. We agree on a song order and anxiously head for the elevator.
The patients, or residents occupy the top two floors only, and Naughty Miss St. Nick informs us that we need to start at the top and work our way down. We squeeze into the elevator and make our way up to the eighth floor. In the elevator I look at Rebecca and mouth the words: “You owe me!” But she ignores me and, determined to have a good time, socializes with the other students.
The top floor of the home is not unlike a hospital. Most of the walls are off-white and fairly nondescript. It’s clean but far from cozy. We’re led down a hallway past several small rooms where residents can be seen either sitting in chairs or lying in beds, all with blank or slightly confused stares as they watch this group of intruders walk past. As we approach the end of the hall, the sound of canned laughter seems to grow louder. We enter a larger common room where a group of about eight residents, mostly in wheelchairs, have already begun to form. There’s a small, malnourished, sad looking Christmas tree in the corner with only a handful of decorations hanging from the sagging branches.
Some of the patients seem vaguely curious of our presence while others aren’t exactly sure what’s going on. I begin to feel nervous thinking to myself, “This could be a tough room.” A nurse smiles at us and, reaching up, slaps the on/off switch of a television set with the palm of her hand causing Lucy and Ethel to fade to black.
We nervously glance at each other, then Stacy, waving her arms with a mixture of authority and kinky holiday sexuality, beckons us to begin. We kick off the evening with “The First Noel”. I’m shocked at how good we sound! You’d have thought we’d rehearsed for weeks though five minutes earlier, most of us had never laid eyes on each other. Other residents shuffle out of their rooms and the crowd grows to about twenty. A few of them are actually moved to tears.
As we run through our repertoire, we sound more and more like a real choir. Our confidence grows and we find ourselves just as enthralled as our audience. At one point some of us pick harmonies creating an even richer sound. A few of the residents rock back and forth in their chairs, rapt by the music. Some of them reach out and grab our arms with their pale shriveled blue veined hands holding on tight as if our youth might wear off on them.
As we work our way down the hall, more and more people congregate. The first group we sang to follows us as we make our way to other rooms. Their enthusiasm is infectious and we feed off their joy inspiring us to sing even louder and with more emotion.
After an encore of “Silent Night”, we take a bow and pile into the elevator. Once the elevator doors shut we spontaneously burst into wild laughter and high-five each other.
As soon as the elevator doors open, the seventh floor residents greet us with cheers and applause. We launch into “Carol Of The Bells” while making our way from one end of the hall to the other.
As we sing, I notice a tiny ancient white haired woman sitting alone in a wheelchair down a dark corridor that looks deserted. She waves her arms pleading for us to come down to her end of the hall. Once we finish with the seventh floor to more wild applause, the group begins to pile into the elevator when I mention that we need to sing for her. We step off the elevator and as we head down the corridor toward her room, she becomes ecstatic rocking in her chair barely able to control herself. Some of the residents smile and motion for us to go sing for her. We can hear them talking excitedly among themselves saying, “They’re going to sing for Helen!” A group of elders follows us down the hall as others nod and smile, beckoning us as a nurse wheels the old woman into her room.
We crowd into her room and find ourselves facing a wall covered with photographs and old yellowed newspaper clippings. She’s unable to make a sound, but she points to the wall and pats herself on the chest. The nurse informs us that she was a famous opera star in the thirties. We silently approach the wall and gaze at the photos of this radiant beauty. There are photographs of her onstage having flowers thrown at her feet. It’s difficult to imagine that this tiny white haired raisin of a person had once been this tall gorgeous creature who apparently filled opera houses all over the world.
The nurse leads us to an old armoire in a corner, which has no business in this white sterile hospital room. She opens the doors revealing a dozen or so gowns, strings of pearls, high heels, and more newspaper clippings taped to the inside. The ancient owner of these beautiful gowns and things beams with pride as we stare dumbfounded.
We kick off with a slow rendition of “Hark The Herald Angels Sing”. She sways in her wheelchair with tears streaming down her cheeks. We sing louder and with more enthusiasm than we have all evening. We feed off her approval — she, as someone who must have moved thousands of people with her voice long before any of us were born. We are amateurs compared to what she must have been, but she gazes up at us as though we are a choir of angels. A crowd of residents forms outside her door listening but they do not enter her room, possibly feeling that she deserves to have us all to herself. They smile at each other as if to say, ‘This is a good thing.’
As we sing our last note, the room falls silent except for the barely audible sound of her tiny hands clapping. One by one, each of us bends down to give her a hug as she silently mouths the words, “Thank you!” and “Wonderful!” We wish her a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and bid her farewell as we file out of her room.
We stand silently in the elevator as we make our way down to the lobby. We shuffle out through the automatic doors and down the steps onto Sixth Avenue as the cold air hits us and snaps us back to a reality that for an hour and a half had escaped us. A few snowflakes begin to appear. We smile at each other knowing we’d all shared something special, then bid farewell promising to be back next year, though we know it will probably never happen.
Rebecca and I head for the subway and just before turning the corner I glance back at the sad castle. The building is now dark except for a couple of rooms on the top two floors. Lights out. I imagine them sleeping in their beds like babies, neither aware nor concerned of the world that’s going on around them. Tucked in, tucked away.
We take the train back to Brooklyn Heights and sit silently as the train pulls into the Clarke Street station. By the time we climb the stairs to street level it’s coming down pretty hard. There’s no wind, just huge lazy snowflakes floating peacefully down to the sidewalk. I look up at the gray clouds illuminated by the city lights and open my mouth tasting a few snowflakes on my tongue.
We silently make our way upstairs to our apartment and quickly get into bed. As we lie there in the dark, I think about these forgotten people, realizing it will probably be the last Christmas for most of them. I try to imagine what their lives must be like up there on the seventh and eighth floors — one day, one week running into another.
Our singing, no doubt, brought back for most of these people, floods of memories of Christmas’s past shared with family members during happier times-all of that far behind them now, never to return.
I silently begin to cry in the dark.
Unaware, Rebecca reaches over and puts her hand in mine and whispers, “I owe you.”