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Magic in Manhattan

My parents were from New York City, so we traveled there several times a year to visit relatives, see the sights and breathe puffy cumulus clouds of diesel exhaust.

I never liked The City for all the obvious reasons a Saranac Lake native wouldn’t. It seemed that regardless of what was there, there was just too much of it. People, noise, traffic, lights, dog poop — you name it, and it was there in dreaded excess.

The pace of everything made me dizzy. I was (and still am) a world-class dawdler who drove my mother nuts since I always got home from everything and everywhere much later than expected. Like every other childhood sin of mine, I swore I’d change and give it up … but I never did. So imagine a shlepper like me in the subway at rush hour. The only thing that saved me from curling into a fetal position and dying on the IRT was my mother’s iron grip on my collar as she dragged me through the raging sea of humanity.

For all that, I liked The City during Christmas, and Christmas 1953 is the one I liked best.

New York’s Christmas was nothing like Christmas in My Home Town, which was a living Norman Rockwell painting. Temperatures were frigid, the way I thought they were supposed to be, and we had immense amounts of snow … everywhere. The town itself, which had almost twice as many people then, was bustling. The streets were full of smiling people, on one mission or another, and the businesses were festooned with decorations of all sorts. Riverside Park had a big creche, and the evergreen there was wrapped in lights.

But the real showpiece was the pine tree in Berkeley square. If you never saw it, you missed a real treat. I’ve no idea how tall it was, but it was huge and needed guy wires to the various buildings around the square to keep it vertical. Plus its branches were so long and full, it was inevitable they’d brush against any car going through the square. But that was just accepted. Where care had to be taken was being sure not to snag the lights on a hood ornament or radio antenna and thus drag them off the tree (which, by the way, actually happened to a friend of mine).

Another unique town treat was Santa’s Jukebox. It was a jukebox in the square (in front of Wilson’s, as I recall), which raised money for gifts for local kids. It was a project of the Wallace family, who wrapped all the presents themselves. As a kid, I knew it was great thing because it was a charity, but I also loved listening to songs blasting into the middle of town. Today, with car sound systems that can play Madison Square Garden (and whose owners apparently WANT to), we forget how rare it was to hear loud music, especially outside.

If I’d had my druthers, I’d have stayed in SL for the holidays, but Christmas in NYC also had its good points — especially at night. During the day, the city was the same drag as always, and maybe even worse, with its banks of grungy black snow. But once night fell, the whole city turned into a wonderland.

A phrase attributed to Napoleon is, “God is on the side of the biggest battalions.” Though he never said it, as an analogy, I’d say with Xmas, God is on the side of the most lights and decorations. And in that case, NYC was top of the line, hands down.

Wonderland

The whole city was lit up with Christmas lights, in all colors and sizes and arrangements, on light poles and buildings that glowed and glittered in every direction, as far as the eye could see. But the real delight was the department store window displays.

To me, they were mind-boggling. First, whatever they were, they’d been designed and arranged by professionals (the world’s best, I’m sure) whose only job was to set up window displays. Second, no expense was spared. And third, they had animated figures of all sorts. Certainly, by today’s standards, those automatons were primitive at best, but to 6-year-old me they were utterly magical. And it didn’t matter what they were. Standard North Pole Santa, elves and reindeer, Dickens’ characters, fairy tales figures, wood choppers, skaters — whatever the scene, I stood there transfixed. And if my feet froze and my nose ran uncontrollably, I never realized it till we got back to the hotel.

The Real Deal

The window displays, for all their otherworldly beauty, lacked a human connection. But that was more than made up for with my one-on-one with Santa Claus, himself.

We rendezvoused with Santa in what I assumed was his Gotham headquarters — Macy’s. When I say “one-on-one,” it’s only in a manner of speaking: I had to wait in line with dozens of other jumpy little shmendricks for my chance to bend Santa’s ear. Wired to the eye teeth on adrenaline and anticipation, my wait flew by in a flash, and before I knew it I was being hoisted up on The Great Man’s knee.

That guy was Santa, with a capital S, not some cheesy imitation. Halfway through second grade and wise beyond my years, I already had my doubts about whether he existed or not. But once face-to-face with him, all my doubts were dispelled. His beard, his belly, his booming laugh were real and exactly how I’d imagined they’d be.

That said, I can’t remember anything else about My Brush With Greatness. I’m sure he asked my name and if I’d been a good boy, and I’m equally sure I told the truth about the former and lied out both sides of my mouth about the latter. Then he must have asked what I wanted for Christmas. And after that was settled, suddenly a flashbulb went off, thus immortalizing the moment in a small black and white photo. Finally, I wandered back to my family, dazed and delighted.

I had that pic for years. Essentially, it’d suddenly pop up somewhere, and I’d pore over it for a while. Then I’d misplace it, and when I least expected it, it’d appear again — a poor man’s Brigadoon or something. Finally, it — along with my comic book collection, Indian head pennies, Jack Dempsey autograph and all the rest — vanished into the dust of history.

But ultimately, the photo was just a prop … and an unnecessary one at that. For while I haven’t seen it in decades, in my memory it’s as sweet and clear as ever.

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