With the horrible specter of the fiscal cliff approaching, the “shudder” has become the national gesture. It’s almost Christmas, and people are looking scared. I’ve seen that look before. As most of you know, I’m a lot older than I seem. I may appear to be 38, but it’s an illusion.
By now, even the most devoted of you probably have tired of my recollections of youth. I don’t care, because I have one more tale to tell. There was in my childhood, one memorable phrase spoken by the old men, at every Christmas party in hard times and good. It went like this: “You think this is bad, kid? Lemme tell ya.”
One Christmas long ago, my father took me downtown the week before, to get me out of the house where all hell was breaking loose, because my older sister was planning to marry a boy of a different faith.
Once downtown, Pop, against orders, bought me hot chocolate and an ice cream sandwich, chocolate ice cream on a hot waffle fresh from the grill at Woolworth’s Five and Ten. I can taste it still.
Then we strolled the boulevard, peering into the many big store windows. Each of them had its own Santa, surrounded by young “elf” girls in tight red and green tights. The things a boy remembers.
This was 1938. I know, because two Christmases later, Pop would die on the street. Some things you don’t forget.
The streets were filled with shoppers who mostly stood just staring into the windows. Pop had retired from 40 years in the navy, and had a good, Democratic-appointed job as chief engineer at the main post office. Others were hard hit, but Pop survived.
It was later when we walked East toward the river and the rail yards to the streetcar stop that the color of the day began to drain out. We passed what looked like a bustling restaurant. A dimly lighted place with naked bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It seemed so sad and poor. To this day, I cannot bare the sight of one.
There were strings of colored tree lights strung bravely along the counter, where the men lined up and took trays. I remember how good it smelled, and how it made me hungry.
A long line of men in overcoats were standing along the sidewalk.
At the end of the block, some men were burning Christmas trees in a big barrel. I couldn’t get over that. I asked Pop why.
“To get warm,” he said, and looked away.
At that age, it meant nothing to me. My social conscience was consumed by Dick Tracy and Batman. I was tired, and that aroma was making me hungry.
What happened next has stayed with me all these years. I didn’t know who he was, but Pop did. As he walked by, Pop touched his arm and pulled him aside.
“Hello, Matt,” the man said.
I remember that he had a very red nose, and he kept rubbing it with the back of his hand, a gesture my mother would have smacked my hand for.
Pop put his hand on the man’s shoulder, and they whispered to each other for a while, and then Pop took something from his pocket and gave it to him.
On the way home, Pop held me close and stared out the window. I asked him who the man was.
“A fella I know,” he said, and not another word, until walking home, he asked, “You know your numbers?” He had asked that before many times. He was an engineer. Numbers were sacred to him.
In the years since we’ve all sat through movies about those days, and they all have memories for all of us. That man on the street? He was always in all of them.
I never really learned my numbers as Pop wanted me to. But I did learn my words, and I use them now to remind us all that we have had fiscal cliffs before, terrible ones that brought tears to grown women and men to their knees.
I come to you from a long time ago, and I remember seeing men burning Christmas trees to keep warm and a proud man with a red nose. I remember those things because it’s my job to remember.
It goes like this: “You think this is bad? Lemme tell ya.”
J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.