Back in the mid 60’s, when my friends and I were in the 6th grade, one of our favorite Hometown holiday traditions was to head on over to the fairly new Rye Ridge Shopping Center and play our version of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” behind the pile of Christmas Trees that they were selling.
They used to set up in the northeast corner of the parking lot, where Bowman crosses South Ridge. There, we would casually walk along Ridge Street in our coolest Napoleon Solo/Illya Kuryakin style, then suddenly drop over the guard rail and roll down the hill and into the mountain of trees, which kind of formed a hidden fortress on 3 sides.
We called our adventure the “Yuletide Affair” and day after day we would jump around in bales of evergreen, undetected by the tree guys, or so we thought, until one day the delivery truck arrived and tree after Merry Christmas Tree came raining down on us from above.
Luckily, we were well trained agents and escaped to skulk another day; mostly against our friend Artie and his younger brother, Donnie, both of whom were unaware they were even being skulked.
I’m not sure why we did this; mostly because we were 11 with time on our hands, my friend Abner lived up the street and we liked humming the song.
All good reasons….
Okay…so it’s not much of a Port Chester Christmas story, but it’s my Port Chester Christmas story…lame or not.
See, that’s the problem with writing a hometown Christmas story. Everybody has one, and I know most of them are probably better than mine and go a lot further back.
Some of you grew up in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s or even a time before; a time that still buzzes inside you with life, rich with the detail of texture and color. To my mid to late baby boom generation, the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, like most things that came before us, are just mysteries wrapped in a collection of sepia toned photographs. The sights, the sounds, the feel of 1935 Main Street…I can’t even begin to imagine.
Oh, sure, I’ve got some more stories, but the best I can offer is something like our OLM Christmas pageant, where the big highlight every year was the 8th graders standing as still as statues, recreating the Nativity scene. For some reason this was a big deal and always drew lots of applause, which is still a mystery to me since there wasn’t an enemy agent to be found, let alone a cool theme song to hum.
So, I’m struggling here, rolling back to numerous Christmas Eves spent with my Italian and Irish grandparents on South Regent and Rollhaus Place, respectively, trying to dig up a good one—like, maybe the time my cousin blew linguini out of her nose when she found out what scungilli really was.
So there’s that.
But the more I think about it, I guess I would have to say that my most enduring Christmas memory of Port Chester would be that one night a year I went into the village with my dad, to buy my mom’s Christmas presents.
It would always be the last Thursday night, just before the big day. He’d walk into the house, right from the train, still carrying the chill of December on his long winter coat. The rest was routine: drop the keys on the side table, take off his hat, stick his brief case in the corner…except on this one night, there came the long awaited announcement…“The men” are going shopping tonight!”
A quick change of clothes followed, transferring pockets of jingling change from suit pants to khakis. Then, keeping to schedule, he‘d pack me into our Black & White 57 Chevy—where the heat almost never worked, which accounted for the December chill thing—and off we went.
Our first stop was a cool little silver clad bakery on the corner of Westchester and Broad that I believe was called Topper’s, at least according to my friend Joanne, who remembers…well, almost nothing, except maybe this. She did get her dad, who knows his bakeries, to verify, so I think we’re okay.
Topper’s was the home of the world’s greatest ginger bread men, or at least I thought so, and I suppose the idea was to provide me with something I could dismember, limb by limb, which would help keep me occupied…not to mention quiet on our long journey into the retail wilderness.
Now, I’m not sure why—maybe because it was such a rare occasion—but as we drove under the railroad bridge, Main Street was suddenly alive with magic; an endless tunnel of colorful lights and garland, dancing from every light pole, across one side of the street to the other.
A Christmas tree, which to a 6 year old was as big as the one in Rockefeller Center, lit up the Square, and the sound of bells ringing from strategically placed Santas created a cacophonous effect, accompanying the buzz and bustle of shoppers crowding the sidewalks as far as my eyes could see.
Of course, I would like to say it was snowing, and maybe it was, at least once—I’m not sure—but it was always frosty and my nose would run as we rambled in and out of creaky storefront doors. However, unlike my mom, who was always at the ready and the nose, with a tissue, my dad would just say “wipe that runny thing”, which left the how to my own ingenuity, which I won’t get into at this time.
On it went, from one store to the other we’d wander in search of “mom” gifts; and the thing that was most amazing, at least to me, was how nice all the sales ladies were to my dad, in a way that they were never “as nice” to my mom. There were always lots of smiles, giggles and even a few wiggles, as he had a way of making all of them, even the sternest ladies from the dreaded Kaplan’s, laugh at his feigned helplessness, while they produced the latest in early 60’s fashion for our perusal.
A poofy hat with a weird kind of netting and possibly a feather. A fuzzy sweater with strange little beads and maybe a poodle stitched on the pocket.
My dad would hold up each item, looking this way and that, then finally turn to me and say, “Which one do you think?”
I would study each item carefully, then point to the one that had the most blue in it, pretty much the same as I still do today.
Afterwards, with a job well done, we would stop at Nielsen’s for a hot chocolate and a—
Well, in the official Frank Capra and mom version that’s how it might have gone. But in reality it was more like Covino’s or Amerigo’s for a slice of pizza and a “Pop for Pop” as he might have said it.
Then the short ride home, where I always fell asleep, and it always snowed in my dream.
So, I guess that’s it…my hometown Christmas story…and I wouldn’t write it any other way.
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“The Kingdom of Keys”
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