Christmas at the Twenty-Third Street revisits the characters of TheTwenty-Third Street Psalm
This coat had been the castoff of a slightly bigger man, and the lining was shredded now. Still, Zeke liked the cut of it, the way it made him a little more like he did in the old days he recalled without self-pity.
Delivery vans with bad mufflers, gypsy cabs without medallions, cars that blared loud music of Spanish Harlem flowed past him. Finally, the bus rumbled up to the stop. The driver, knowing Zeke was only going as far as the West Side, waved away his fare, saying, “It’s Christmas Eve.”
“I’m grateful,” Zeke said, his throat gravelly with the cold.
It took forever for the crosstown bus to reach the other side of Upper Manhattan, but when they arrived, Zeke saw the Seventh Avenue Express. With luck, he made the connection. As the bus pulled away from the curb, Zeke dug through his pockets in a diligent search for his money. Had he dropped the bills or spent them already? “I’m sorry,” Zeke mumbled.
“Just sit down, man, and be cool,” the driver said.
Zeke thanked him profusely, then made his way slowly toward the back. He leaned his head against the window by his seat, his breath fogging up one side of the glass while the wintry mix frosted the other.
It was a long way to go, past a few other places where Zeke might have been able to bum a drink or run a tab, but The Twenty-Third Street Bar & Grille was the only place where he was sure of not being turned away. He settled in for the ride.
A while later—whether ten minutes or an hour, he couldn’t tell—Zeke snorted awake. Looking around, he was aware of two women frowning at him from across the aisle. The view out the window instantly oriented him: the unmistakable glare and bustle of Thirty-Fourth Street. He got ready to disembark at the next major intersection.
“Good day, my dear ladies,” Zeke said in his best Bostonian tone. “Merry Christmas to you and yours.”
One of women dug in her purse, then tried to hand him a dollar.
“Oh, you will find many Salvation Army kettles that will gladly take such generosity.”
If he’d had a hat on he would have tipped it, just to see the look on their faces.
When the bus stopped at 23rd Street, Zeke bid the driver good-bye and Merry Christmas, then stepped into ridges of slush indented by an army of passing pedestrians. By the time he walked down the block and around the corner to Seventh Avenue, and then made his way to the homely façade of The Twenty-Third Street, as they called it, his feet were soaked. Another shiver wracked his body.
The bar was nearly empty, except for a couple in the last booth against the far wall. Their glasses were empty, Zeke noticed, and the woman appeared to be reaching for her coat. When they left, he’d be the only patron. Not a good sign.
Paloma stepped out from behind the bar. “We’re closing early.”
Zeke gritted his teeth, needing a drink so bad he didn’t think he could make it home without one. “How about a beer before you go?”
Paloma bustled back to the taps and drew a Budweiser in a tall mug. She waved his money away. “Merry Christmas.” She was dressed up, Zeke noticed: a fake fur-cropped jacket, short skirt, and spindly-heeled boots that would be ruined with one step outside. “My boyfriend’s picking me up. He lives in Jersey,” Paloma said.
Zeke registered the hope in her voice. Over the past few years, since Paloma started working at The Twenty-Third Street, he’d seen quite a few guys hovering around her, and heard plenty of complaints about “those bastards” after they stopped coming around. At least this one was picking her up on Christmas Eve; that had to count for something.
Charlie Henderson, who owned the place, came out of the back kitchen holding a mug of coffee. “Not much going on tonight, Zeke. Everybody’s got somewhere else to be.”
Zeke watched as Charlie put two shots of Irish whiskey from the top shelf into his cup and drank. Zeke’s eyes never left that bottle until he heard a noise at the door, and Paloma rushed past.
A man stood just inside, black jeans tight on his bulky frame; his leather jacket hung open. Paloma kissed him quickly on the lips, then introduced him as Ricky.
“Man, that stuff’s freezing. Saw a spinout on the turnpike.” Ricky flicked a mound of slush from the toe of his boot.
“Where are you two headed?” Zeke asked.
“My sister’s in Brooklyn,” Ricky answered. “She does this Christmas Eve thing—lotsa fish, which I ain’t crazy about, but I like the shrimp scampi.”
“La Vigilia!” Zeke sang out.
“Hey, Paisan?” Ricky grinned.
Zeke shook his head. “No, just a lover of the language.” He couldn’t tell them about the year he’d spent in Rome and Florence, studying art and immersing himself in the culture. Another lifetime ago, when Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker were his best friends, but hadn’t quite taken him over. “You be careful on the roads,” Zeke said. “Miss Paloma, here, is special to us.”
Paloma tapped a high heel against the floor. “What’s gotten into you?”
“You are a good person and deserve good things.” Zeke told her.
She left Ricky’s side long enough to kiss Zeke on the cheek “You be careful, too, old man,” she said softly. “Nowhere to go except this dump on Christmas Eve?”
Zeke gave her a wink. “I’ve got somewhere—don’t you worry.”
Ricky reached over to shake his hand; Zeke tried to steady the tremble in his own.
After Paloma and Ricky left, it was just Zeke and Charlie, who changed his mind about leaving right away. “I’m letting the traffic die down,” he said. “You eat?”
Zeke couldn’t remember if he’d had anything that day or not. “I’m a little hungry.”
“Mind the store. I’m going to the Chicken Shack.” Charlie went out without a coat.
Zeke sat alone at the bar, every bottle shining back at him and the cash register unlocked, and drank in the benediction of Charlie’s trust. He would no more move from his stool, even to top off his beer, than he would toss a rock through the bar’s front window.
The place was as quiet as an old church and nearly as dark. Zeke recalled a little Romanesque chapel outside Birmingham—no, near Stratford. The roughhewn pews had borne the marks of nine hundred years of worshippers. The barrel-vaulted ceiling had looked like it was right out of an architectural textbook.
“Hello?” a woman called. In his reverie, Zeke hadn’t heard anybody come in. “Charlie here?”
She looked young enough to need her ID checked—a little too thin with large, dark eyes and a hint of brunette where her bleached blond started to grow out.
“The proprietor has stepped away momentarily, but if you’ll take a seat.” He motioned in the general direction of the other end of the bar.
“I’m Dawn,” she said. “Charlie’s my mother’s cousin.”
“He’ll be right back. He went to get chicken wings.”
The way the girl wandered the place, Zeke knew she’d never been there before. Circumabulating. Zeke savored the unspoken word, a real mouthful like the ones he used to like to drop unawares on his students.
“God, this music is so old—Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra.” Dawn stood in front of the silent jukebox. “I guess it’s too much to hope for Duran Duran?”
Zeke fished a quarter from the lining of his coat. “I’ll play you my favorite for this time of year.”
The last row of songs was a medley of Christmas music. Zeke slipped the coin into the slot and punched AA48, and Bing Crosby began crooning “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”
“So are you visiting?” Zeke asked her.
“No, I live here now. I’ve been auditioning.” Dawn rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I know everybody wants to act. But I think I got a shot. This guy says I have the look.”
“And he’s a photographer, I’d guess.”
Dawn rapped her knuckles against him lightly. “How’d you guess? He took a bunch of photos. Some of them were a little weird, but he showed them to some guy who wants me to audition.”
He and Charlie should find this guy and break his camera, Zeke thought, if not his nose. “Be careful. Not everybody in this town is who they say they are.”
“Yeah, well, who the hell are you?” Dawn’s eyes widened.
“Nobody,” Zeke said. “Nobody at all.”
The door opened and Charlie stamped his feet, cursing the cold and dampness. He held a bulging white bag that emitted the delicious smell of fried chicken and spices.
“Surprise,” Dawn said.
The last word caught Zeke’s rib as he sucked in his breath at the look of Charlie’s disgust.
“Your ma know you’re here?”
“Maybe—who cares.” Dawn made a face. “So what’s in the bag?”
They ate at the bar, the three of them. Dawn scarfed down so many chicken wings Zeke curbed his own appetite, knowing young and hungry was a bad combination on the streets.
“Where are you staying?” Charlie asked.
“I have a place—or I did. He got pissed at me and I left this morning.”
“The photographer?” Zeke asked.
Dawn didn’t answer. “So I came to say hi to my cousin—we’re like, what, second cousins once removed? Or maybe you want me removed permanently.” She smirked at her own joke.
“You should go home to your ma’s,” Charlie said. “I’ll give you bus fare.”
“I ain’t going back. She’s with this guy and, well, let’s say he wants to be friendlier with me than I wanna be with him.”
“I’d invite you home, but Marilyn would have a fit.”
Marilyn was vying to be Mrs. Charlie Number Three, Zeke knew. He doubted she’d welcome a pretty young woman into their cramped apartment, even a distant cousin.
“I’ll call Danny later. He’ll come around,” Dawn said. “Always does.”
“There has to be somewhere—” Zeke began, but was cut off when the door opened again.
“Hey, you’re here.” Paul, a young news reporter who used to frequent the bar, stood with a tall box wrapped in red foil. He wiped his feet on the sodden mat.
“Come join our little party!” Zeke said.
“Can’t. I’m headed to Syracuse tonight—that is, if this crap lets up. But I wanted to drop this off.” He set the package in front of Zeke. “A little Christmas cheer.”
“You got time for a beer?” Charlie asked.
Paul glanced at the clock on the wall.
“You know that’s fifteen minutes fast,” Zeke said.
“A quick one.” Paul sat on the stool beside Zeke, who introduced Dawn.
“You guys friends?” Dawn asked.
“I used to come here a lot. Now, I’m pretty busy.” Paul perked up. “Hey, I got a piece coming out in Newsday—next day or two. Feature on this homeless guy who used to be a pretty good artist—Madison Avenue gallery representing him and everything. Then he lost it. He’s got money in the bank, but he’s living on the street. Sad as hell, but his family doesn’t want to commit him.”
“So what kind of art does he do?” Dawn tilted her head to the side.
“Abstracts—kind of strange, to tell you the truth. Cactus that looked like a melted candle, but people loved it.”
Zeke asked about graduate school and smiled with satisfaction as Paul recited every class he’d taken at Columbia so far, and what courses came next. Zeke knew he couldn’t take credit for anything Paul did or would do, but he had stepped in a little over a year ago to stop a lonely young man from wasting his life at The Twenty-Third Street. Now he rarely saw Paul. When Paul mentioned someone named Candace, Zeke smiled; things were clearly good for his young friend.
“We should get together.” Paul slipped his jacket back on.
“You’re a busy man. It’s good to see you.” When Paul left, Zeke stared for a heartbeat of a moment at the closed door.
Dawn broke the silence. “So let me tell you about this audition I had last week.” Zeke nodded as he nursed the last of his beer.
A sudden draft became a steady gust of cold air. Zeke hunched his shoulders, expecting that the wind had caught the front door. But when he turned, he saw a little girl. Zeke blinked, not trusting his sight, but the image didn’t change. She was five or so, he’d guess, in a pink snowsuit jacket with a smudged ruff around the hood. A man came in behind her, wearing a thin baseball jacket with a tear in one sleeve and hands stuffed into the pockets of skinny jeans. His hair was dark. Stubble covered his cheeks.
“You’ll be warmer if you come all the way in.” Zeke looked at Charlie. “My tab still good?”
Charlie shook his head. “Santa’s the only one with a tab on Christmas Eve. Guess that’s me.” He disappeared into the back and came out with four mugs on a tray and a pot of coffee. He took down the whiskey bottle from the top shelf.
The young man made a feeble attempt at paying for the Irish coffee.
“On the house,” Charlie said. “What’s your name?”
“Jeremy,” he replied. “This is Stella.”
Zeke took a deep sip and pressed his lips together. Nothing warmed like Crown Royal. “Stella by Starlight.” He sang a few lines in his weak baritone.
Dawn wrinkled her nose. “You got any more cream?”
Charlie handed her a carton of half ‘n’ half and filled a short glass with cola for Stella. “She your daughter?”
Jeremy nodded. “Her ma’s got problems. Stella’s with me, now.”
Zeke dug into the depths of the lining of his coat, groping for change, and pulled out a five-dollar bill. “Well, what do you know? Manna from heaven.” He turned to Dawn. “Would you be so kind as to see if the Chicken Shack is still serving?”
Charlie gave her a ten from the till. “Enough for everybody.”
They ate more than they drank for once, a double order of chicken wings and biscuits, courtesy of the Chicken Shack cook who was looking to get rid of what hadn’t sold. Dawn fed quarters into the jukebox as Stella twirled across the floor. Jeremy told his whole, predictable story of lost jobs and poor choices, but his devotion to Stella was undeniable.
“Don’t want nothing to happen to her,” Jeremy said. “She should be in kindergarten already. If she don’t go next year, the state’ll take her away from me.”
“Where are you staying tonight?” Zeke asked him.
“They got places. Christmas Eve they don’t turn away no families,”
Zeke’s pockets were empty now, and he had no idea where his own next meal would come from. But he had a place to stay, the rent paid by a brother who assuaged the family guilt with a check each month. The place was small and dirty, the reflection of a man who’d long ago given up on his own soul.
“Okay, last call,” Charlie said. He told Dawn he’d spoken with Marilyn. If Dawn wanted, she could stay the night. “But you gotta call your ma.”
“I wanna go to Danny’s and get my stuff.”
“All right, we’ll go there. But you make up your mind—you stay there or come with me.”
As they left the bar, Zeke struggled to stay steady on his feet on the sidewalk, but when Stella slipped her tiny mittened hand in his, he gained his footing. In the other arm, he carried his present from Paul.
“My place isn’t much—cramped and not all that clean,” Zeke offered. “But you’re welcome to stay.”
Jeremy kept his head down. “I don’t like owing nobody.”
Zeke led the way to the bus stop around the corner. “In this world, there are those who give, and those who receive. All of us are both, at one time or another.”
The bus was warm, its passengers few. Being Christmas Eve, the driver let them on without paying after Zeke explained that the little family with him had no place to go.
They occupied the long, bench-like seat in the very back of the bus. It smelled like exhaust, but at least it was warm.
“We’re going to Zeke’s place,” Jeremy said. “That okay with you?”
Stella buried her face against him.
Jeremy unzipped her jacket, and Zeke reached down to take her feet out of her boots. Curled up between the two men, Stella slept with the peace of innocence through the city, as the snow fell and people found a place to be.
Image Credit: © Sannare | Dreamstime.com – Christmas Illustration Of City Street. (Watercolor)