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A Depression Christmas

By: Bob Stubenrauch

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The Christmas of 1935 was as grim as the previous four were, and the next three would be. I was eleven and knew that, however lean, we would have a Christmas. Had I been a few years older, I might have been less confident. Some telltale signs of our Christmas being just another winter weekend were evident.

We lived in a seven-room frame row house in the Flushing-Hillcrest neighborhood of Queens, New York. The Flushing-Jamaica trolley car rattled by our corner, access to the north and south shore of Long Island for a nickel. Our uninsulated two-story home consumed coal with an insatiable appetite during those depression year winters, among the worst in New York history. I remember the glow of relief on my mother's face when the noisy chain drive coal truck would arrive. I'd run out and unhook and pull aside our steel mesh fence so the driver could back up to our side cellar window. He'd fix a battered chute from the truck through the window above our coal bin, and the dusty black lumps would rumble in almost to the cellar ceiling. My mother would have crumpled dollar bills ready, eight dollars a ton. With luck, some mild days, and my older brother and I sifting the ashes for unburnt "clinkers" that ton would last a month. But the truck had not come for weeks. I had swept the remaining scattered lumps together and filled two pails, enough for the day, and a banked fire for that night.

My father had come home that evening in an ancient truck. The driver seemed to be a friend, because it was "Gene" and "Ed" back and forth. My dad and his friend staggered to the cellar window with a huge bag of coal from the back of the truck. A second bag was deposited in the open window and the truck rumbled away into the night. I remember my father saying softly to my mom in the kitchen; "Well, at least we'll be warm over Christmas." Coal, by the bag, was a last ditch stopgap.

There were other signs. Mom and I would usually take the trolley to Jamaica to shop for my dad's gift several weeks before the holiday. If we went to Gertz Department Store or Montgomery Wards, I'd know we were okay that year. If we went to Woolworth and shopped for piano sheet music or a paperback novel (both cost the same price, a quarter), I'd know I'd be helping my mom darn more socks that year. I'd see my weary mother listen to "Just Plain Bill" or "Stella Dallas" on our aging Stromberg Carlson radio, while her nimble fingers flew over the family's worn out sock heels. That image of a middle-aged woman with reddened hands, seated in our wicker rocker, tucked closely to the gurgling steam radiator, the bridge lamp angled over for the best light, is as clear to me now as it was those many winter nights ago. She was 37.

The morning of Christmas Eve arrived and there had been no trolley ride to Jamaica, no boxes hidden in the closets on the upper shelf, no searching for hints of what my brother and I might want for Christmas. The last week of school before the holiday had passed in a haze of trepidation. In those days it was a ritual for every student to receive a box of hard candy with a Santa Claus or an angel decal on the side. It was ten cents worth of candy, brought into the home as a prized gift of care and affection from our teachers.

Suddenly, I could wait no longer. I blurted out to my mother that if we didn't get our tree soon, we wouldn't have enough time to decorate it. We were in the kitchen, and my mom turned from the gas range to reply. She had a look of such anguish I knew the answer before it was spoken. "There won't be a tree this year Bobby, because there can't be. Your father is waiting to be accepted on the WPA program. In another month that should happen, and we will be all right again. Trees are very expensive this year; two and a half to six dollars! We can eat a week on what a tree costs so we'll just have to do without this year. We'll listen to Lionel Barrymore play Scrooge on the radio, and hear the carols, and we are certainly going to Christmas mass, so we will have our Christmas. Your father feels very bad about it, so please don't let him see you upset."

She put on a forced bright smile, gesturing with the potato masher in her hand. "Why don't you get our your electric trains? Dad will feel better if he sees you enjoying them." She had a point. My Lionel passenger train set had arrived four years before under a tree jammed to the wall with gifts. I busied myself digging out the box from the bottom of my bedroom closet and earnestly tried to adjust to the reality of a Christmas morning without gifts or tree.

That evening, after dinner, my father pored over his stamp collection at the dining room table. Only years later did I realize he had been selling off bits and pieces of his extensive collection to feed his family. Suddenly, before I knew what I was saying, it burst out: "Daddy, could maybe I go look and see if there are any really cheap trees? Maybe somebody has one for less than two dollars, could I?" My father looked up, expressionless, looking not at me, but my mother seated across the table. "Marion," he said, "didn't you explain to the boys why we aren't having a tree this year?"

Damn! With a flash of insight I realized I had made my father angry with my mother. My mom replied calmly: "I did, Gene, and Bobby understands, but maybe he's right. It's been snowing since dark; I wouldn't be surprised to see those salesmen reduce the prices so they could go home to be with their families on Christmas Eve. If they came down to, say, a dollar and half, maybe Bobby could find one?" Hurray, Mom was clearly on my side!

My father hesitated: "I can't give him a dollar and a half but I can give him seventy-five cents. If you can find a tree for seventy-five cents, Bobby, buy it and bring it home. I don't want you to go beyond Union Turnpike; stay on the sidewalks, and be home…in one hour, okay?"

I couldn't believe it! I was so sure I could find a tree, and from the looks my parents were exchanging, I knew they too badly wanted that tree. I couldn't get out of the house until my mom had seen me clothed in my old heavy coat, mittens, scarf and leather flying helmet. I tried to dash out then, but was forcibly restrained until I had struggled into my galoshes. I wrapped the three quarters in my handkerchief, buried it in my pants pocket, and headed for our corner. I decided I would go up 164th. Street toward Union Turnpike, checking out the six or seven tree lots established on this busy road. The night was bitterly cold, the air was absolutely still, the snow coming straight down. Only the orange glow of a distant trolley could be seen down the silent white roadway. Soon it thundered by, passengers bundled beyond steamed windows, parcels on almost every lap, straphangers swaying sleepily.

To my surprise, the first two enclosures of bundled trees were gone. Were it not for a few remaining support stakes in the field, they might never have been there. Next was a small lot run by the grocery store adjoining it. As I wandered through the trees, the clerk came out, white apron on, his hands scrubbing one another against the cold. "What do you want, kid?" he said. "Do you have any left around a dollar?" I replied. "Sorry, there's nothing there less than three bucks, and they were five and up yesterday," he said.

"Sorry, no thanks," I said and he dashed back inside, pleased, I was sure that he hadn't made a sale for the owner. The next lot closed as I approached, a few dozen trees lashed to the roof of a huge old Nash, as he drove off, perhaps to a busier location. One block before Union Turnpike was the tree lot I had watched unfold over the previous two weeks. A wooden shack had been deposited in the corner of the field, stakes driven and ropes strung to support the bundled trees.

Some thirty trees were displayed open, nailed to crude wooden stands. This had been the busiest lot and yet more than fifty trees still remained. While their stock became slowly frosted in white from the snow, two men huddled over a scrap wood fire blazing in a battered old steel drum. One man was short, with a drawn and unshaven face, clad in a knit hat pulled down over his ears and buried in an oversized old army overcoat reaching to his heels. His hands were so hungry for heat they hovered scant inches above the flames. His partner was tall and portly, clean-shaven, rosy cheeked, his appearance more suited to a Santa suit than his tree peddler role. For some reason, as I walked up to the pair, I thought they looked like Laurel and Hardy down on their luck.

I spoke to the taller man: "I'm looking for a tree, mister-a cheap tree, 'cause we can't spend much." The tall man studied me, the short man didn't even take his eyes off the fire. "Trees we have, sonny, lots and lots of trees, the question is how cheap is cheap? You are in luck though," here he pulled a dollar Ingersoll pocket watch from his coat and studied the dial, "It is just nine o'clock and our final closeout, Merry Christmas sale, has just begun." He put the watch away and beamed at me. "Every tree on the lot, every tree, even those ten footers that were eight dollars are now one price, one giveaway bargain price of just two bucks, so pick out what beauty you want, sonny."

My heart sank. This was the last place and it seemed that seventy-five cents wouldn't buy anything. The portly salesman read my face and spoke: "Do I understand that two dollars is beyond your means, young man?" "I have seventy-five cents, sir," I replied. The man hovering over the fire turned toward me, sighed and turned back to the flames. The tall man moved to his partner's side and a brief murmured discussion took place. The hand warmer shrugged, his friend came back with a new and brighter smile: "We have just reached a management decision, my partner and I, because the crowds of buyers are not too pressing and the night rather bitter, at nine ten…Oh my, that is right now"…the watch made a brief reappearance, "Our final, final, absolutely final markdown will be made to just seventy-five cents!" I couldn't believe it, until he waved his arms expansively and urged me to take my pick.

I counted out my three quarters into his outstretched hand. Charlie, as I head the hand warmer call him, then helped me pick out a tall and beautifully shaped, straight as an arrow tree, with all the courtesy and deference due a man buying a Roadmaster Buick. He even ran a length of twine around the branches, top to bottom, so I could drag it over the snow without damage. Before leaving, I turned back to say, "Thanks for the special price, next year we'll get our tree here, and at the regular price!" Both men turned from the fire, now hissing and popping in contest with the snow that was falling heavier yet.

"Who knows where anyone will be next year, sonny," the heretofore silent hand warmer called out in a surprisingly strong voice. "If we're not here, we'll be picking oranges in Florida. You study hard, feller, when you grow up, this will be all over…all over." His voice ran down like our Victrola when the spring had run out. He turned back to the fire and as I reached the smooth white sidewalk, the big tree leaving a broad trail behind me, I heard faintly, "Gotta be over, gotta be over soon." I glanced back over my shoulder and in the orange fire ring floating in the white snow curtain. I saw the two men, now just silent shadows, the tall man's hand resting on his partner's shoulder.

Ahead of me was the five block trudge home. Each corner had a street light, and each lamp had an aura of descending snow, like an endless curtain of Irish lace slipping through the cone of yellow light. I was alone with the wonder of that night, only an occasional car silently passed me by, pushing ahead of it twin shafts of silver that died quickly in the thick and silent snow. I slogged on, my hand around the base of the trunk of my gorgeous tree, that slid along effortlessly on the two inch cushion of snow behind me.

Soon I turned down my street and pulled the tree up to the side door. I rang the bell and my father answered. He took one startled look, and directed me around to the front door, commenting that we could never snake such a big tree around the side landing past the icebox and into the kitchen. He opened the front door and the two of us carried it through the porch, the living room, and dropped it dripping near its traditional place, the dining room alcove. While my mother mopped up the melting snow, I told them of my extraordinary luck in finding the last possible place just beginning a seventy-five cent sale as I arrived. Dad looked at Mom and Mom looked at Dad, and I did have a fleeting thought that I had missed something, but what mattered was that glorious, spectacular brute of a tree right there on the floor. Soon my father affixed the metal stand to the base, then borrowed Mom's sewing tape measure and announced the top would have to come off "a bit," or it could not stand erect. "The bit" that was sawed off was itself a miniature three-foot tree. While my older brother, Eugene, brought down the boxes of ornaments, my father set the tree upright. It was a magnificent sight, filling the entire alcove. Its most striking feature, not having a pointed top, was the appearance of going through the ceiling to the floor above. Two hours later, with the Stromberg Carlson blaring carols in the background, we had it decorated, all but the side against the wall.

We tumbled into our beds around midnight with a solid, banked fire in the furnace and a family Christmas tree where it should be. We had a week's supply of coal, two weeks' of food, and enough love for a lifetime.

The next morning I came downstairs, steeled to find the tree surrounded by my electric trains and nothing more. There were, however, several gifts for my brother and me. He was an avid reader of "Flying Aces" and I of "Wild West Weekly" and those pulp magazines were what we received. My mother had managed her shopping so frugally the past month, there would be a turkey, and sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce for a real Christmas Dinner. The snow had stopped, the sun shone and the twelve-block walk to St. Nicholas of Tolentine for mass would not be too difficult.

My father knelt down beside me, as I set the cardboard tunnel over the train tracks. He was not a demonstrative man, but he gave me a firm hug, looked me in the eyes, and said, "Thanks Bobby, thanks for Christmas."

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