An "Extry Special" Christmas
"What you be wantin for Christmas?" Max asked me right after Thanksgiving, a few short months after Glory brought me home to live with her and Max and Vi.
"Grandpapa Cooperman always gives me an orange and a pear and a chunk of chocolate," I told him. "Santa Claus doesn't give kids like me a bunch of presents."
"Kids like you?" Max frowned at me. "What kind of kids be like you?"
"Santa Claus brings toys to good boys and girls," I repeated the oft-told mantra. "Nobody I know gets anything special so I guess we must have been born bad. Do you think Santa Claus is real?" I asked out of the blue.
"Of course Santa Claus is real, girl child," Max said and surprising both of us, he sat down next to me and pulled me into a hug. Before that time he rarely did more than pat my shoulder or drop a quick kiss on my forehead when I went to bed.
"You just have to believe."
"Believe what?" Vi asked when she walked into the room.
"Believe in Santa Claus," Max said solemnly and gave her a serious look.
Vi looked back at us. She frowned, too, and then she turned away but not before I saw a tear in her eye. Strong and beautiful Vi - a sweet Southern lady of the evening with a spine of steel. Way back then when I was still fairly young, I was totally unaware that her childhood had been filled with more misery and more pain than I have words.
"Me and Glory and Vi gonna make Christmas extry special this year," Max told me in his deep rumbling voice. "You be seeing. It be mighty special."
I nodded. I had heard that before. Time would tell.
Glory and Vi asked if I wanted to visit Santa who was currently visiting Marshall Field's. I declined. I knew that wasn't the real Santa Claus. That was Officer O'Malley, the nicest policeman in our neighborhood. He was friendly with Grandpapa Cooperman and I heard him tell the old man that he was going to make a few extra bucks by playing Santa Claus. Grandpapa Cooperman had nodded his head and when he saw me, he winked. He and I both knew that Santa was for good boys and girls but old Kris Kringle didn't care who was naughty and who was nice so he was the one to watch for. I had more faith in Grandpapa Cooperman than I did in Santa Claus.
"Santa has to worry about all the good boys and girls," I told Max. "So Kris Kringle gives stuff to Grandpapa Cooperman to give to me and the other kids." This made perfect sense to me but I could tell Max wasn't sure about that. I suggested he go talk to Grandpapa Cooperman who could probably explain it better than I could.
Christmas in Chicago is usually a cold and snowy one.
I remember the tiny sparkling lights in all the trees that line Michigan Avenue - beautiful.
I remember Christmas dinner at Molly's Coffee Shop and the hot chocolate the sweet woman always made for me and Alli and some other friends. It had melted marshmallows on top and we always got some on our noses, always a cause for giggles.
I remember Christmas Day and Grandpapa Cooperman opening his grocery store for the street kids. He filled our pockets with oranges and pears and fresh dates and chunks of chocolate.
I remember one really cold night in December when Alli and I and Hambone and Bobby Bacon took shelter in a Catholic church. The young priest made hot cocoa for us and taught us how to play "dreidel." A dreidel is like a toy top. It has four sides and each side represents an action in the game. It's a game of chance and played with pennies. He said it was a Chanukah game and we played it on the floor just below the figure of Christ. That's one of my sweeter memories of the Yuletide season.
"Santa's gonna bring you underwear and socks," Max told me when he caught me eating cake just before Glory put supper on the table.
"Socks are good," I told him with my mouth full. "Warm dry socks are good."
"Don't talk with food in your mouth, child. It's not polite," Vi scolded. "People will think you've been raised in a barn."
"We might earn a living on our backs," Glory winked as she pointed me in the direction of the supper table, "but it's a decent living and Vi makes sure we got manners even if it kills us. Put a napkin in your lap and shock the hell out of her, ya here?"
I sputtered cake into my napkin, trying not to laugh out loud at Glory's teasing but Max lost it completely, his deep rumbling laughter filling the basement apartment where we lived.
Vi got huffy and muttered a phrase or two that made Max arch his brows.
"No call to get ugly," he told her. "A lady is a lady is a lady. You be hearin me correct Miss Violet Sue?"
"I hear you," Vi grumbled but she smiled when I smoothed a napkin over my lap.
"We be Christmas-ing at that new buildin they be buildin over on Bleeker this year. I spoke to that foreman fella and he says we can use the ground floor seein as how it still be empty and such. I'd a prefer somethin warmer but it'll do."
"We're not having Christmas here?" I asked after I finished the cake and started working on the sweet potatoes Glory made. She candied them and added spices that made them taste so rich and sweet they filled your mouth like a rare confection.
"We be having our own private Christmas on the big day," Max said "but Christmas for the ladies that work for me and some friends and such - that be over on Bleeker this year."
"Will there be a tree?"
"Course there be a tree. Pass them potatoes girl child. Leave some for me." He eyed my plate and then he scowled. "And how come Glory give you the biggest slice of that sweet ham and a chunk of pineapple to beat the band? Glory!" Max shouted when she stuck her head out of the kitchen.
"Yes, master?" Glory quipped.
"Glor-r-r-y," Max intoned in a whole other voice.
"I know. I know," she blushed. "Biggest piece of ham always goes to the biggest..."
"Glory!" Max and Vi both shouted at the same time and pointedly looked at me.
Fortunately I was too young to understand their private innuendoes and besides, there was hot food on the table. It was unattended and within my reach. I've never been shy around food. I helped myself.
I'd been living with Max and Vi and Glory for about four months when we celebrated our first Christmas together. I was aware that Glory and Vi were prostitutes and that Max was their live-in partner. I knew he was also a pimp with a "stable" of other prostitutes. Needless to say, these characteristics did not qualify them as suitable foster parents in the eyes of social services and I was forever avoiding the ones who came around looking for me.
To me, they were three loving and caring adults who doted on me. They made sure I attended school, did my homework, and completed particular chores that were my responsibility. They were strict about things parents are strict about and shielded me from most of the unpleasant parts of their lives. Through it all, they loved me unconditionally.
Saturday mornings were my private times with Glory who was teaching me how to cook and bake.
"A little of this and a little of that and you got yourself a good meal to put in front of your lover," she often told me. "And don't be telling the secrets inside that make the food taste good. If he eats it and likes it, make it again. If he don't, well, be happy you didn't spill the secret recipe. Chuck it from your mind and go try another."
Glory taught me to experiment with tastes. She also taught me that food was an essential ingredient in a love relationship. "Once you're out of bed he'll be wantin' somethin to eat. Make food he loves and he'll stick to you like glue. Then he'll take you back to bed and start lovin you all over again. If you're lucky in love, you'll be chasing him out of the house just to get some rest."
Vi often met me after school and we'd go shopping for some special thing for me - a dress, a sweater, new shoes, a book, a comb of my own. A favorite place for both of us was the public library...
"Libraries are like bookstores," she told me in her sweet Southern drawl. "Only you don't have to pay to read the books. You can take them home and read all you want. That's the upside to libraries. The downside is that they're like parking meters. You just have so much time before they're due but you can check them out again and again."
Vi's favorite books were dictionaries and encyclopedias and atlases. She gifted me with the pleasure of words.
It took Max a long time to do more than pat me on my head or shoulder and the first few months, he wouldn't sit next to me on the couch.
"I don't want no white man or snooty woman thinkin I be gettin too close to you girl child. Everbody know how I make my money. Everbody know Vi 'n Glory be my woman-folk. Don't want them be thinkin I doin wrong by you."
Max couldn't read. It was almost a year after I lived with the trio that I realized I never saw him read. He was a whiz with numbers, always checking my math homework and I had seen him sign checks. Apparently, with great determination, he had learned to write his name but that was all he could do.
"A man have to put a big ol "X" where his name should be... That be a man who better be good at somethin else in this here life. One uh these days, I'm gonna learn m'self how to read 'n write more than jus my name."
"I can read and write," I piped up. "I could help you learn if you'd let me."
There was dead silence in the room. Glory put a hand to her mouth and took a few steps back. Vi sighed - long and loud - no doubt she had tried to teach Max to read and write countless times.
"How about I read to you? You could sit next to me and I'll read a little something every night. Then, when you get comfortable with looking at all the words as words and not as squiggly lines, you'll try your hand at it. What do you say?"
"Ain't gonna be listenin to ya read some kiddie story," he huffed.
I smiled. My teacher had been telling us the story of Scheherazade and a thousand and one nights. I was eager to read every story and if each story was good enough for the king in the tale, surely it would hold Max's attention, too.
It did. Each night Max sat next to me at the dining room table, enthralled with the fantasies. A few weeks later I caught him doodling - o's and e's and s's. It was the beginning.
That first Christmas over on Bleeker... Max and Vi and Glory and I arrived early the afternoon of Christmas day. The tree was already there. I don't know where it came from but there it was - tall and green and filled with thick branches. It was my first real taste of Christmas and smelled like a slice of heaven.
The street folk started showing up within the hour, each one bringing a little something to dress up the tree. There were bits of ribbons and torn lace, an odd assortment of ornaments, pinecones, a troll doll, a yo-yo and a Spalding ball. Glory filled the branches with tinsel; Vi hung small candies and Max lifted me up in the air to put a large star at the top of the tree. The tree made all the grownups smile and in the wonder of childhood, my eyes saw the most beautifully decorated tree in the world.
The "ladies" arrived all decked out in their finest - bustiers, high-heeled boots, fishnet stockings, skimpy shorts and long wool coats. They were made up like Broadway stars with glitter and gloss and they smelled like a perfume factory, all the scents blending into one another. They brought food and wine and as each one arrived and kissed Max on the cheek, they bent down to give me a hug as I stood by his side.
Santa showed up in the early evening, drunk and a little loud and carrying a small bag of treats which he distributed to everyone there, even Max. There was chocolate and tubes of lipstick and silk stockings - not nylon, but silk - and miniature bottles of different liquors. Max got cigars and was happily puffing away while we all ate and drank. Vi made sure I had hot chocolate which was fine with me because the cup was filled with extra marshmallows.
That night - when the "ladies" went back to work, Max and Vi and Glory and I went home to spend a rare evening together.
"I guess this be the time to give our girl child her Christmasy present," he announced when we walked in the door.
"Another one?" I was dumbfounded. The three of them had already made my Christmas "extry special." I got those socks and underwear. But I also received ribbons for my hair, my very own hairbrush and matching comb and mirror, a tube of lip gloss, pajamas, a heavy scarf, gloves, 2 sweaters and a WOOL coat! A wool coat just for me! Santa had also brought a very thick dictionary along with a set of cookbooks.
"Here you be," Max said as he handed me a shoebox tied with a ribbon. I opened it and to my surprise, a tiny yellow tabby kitten looked up at me.
My very own kitten - all mine - one that wouldn't be taken away - ever.
The kitten mewed and wouldn't stop mewing.
"Who he think he be? Mozart?" Max laughed.
"Mozart," I tried the name on the little feline... It crawled up my chest and purred. Mozart became "Mo" and we grew up together. He went to college with me and was a beloved member of our household when Cowboy and I were married. He was a "fat cat," spoiled and adored and he lived a full 18 years.
Max had promised me a really "extry special" Christmas.
And it was.