Chapter 4: Christmas Present

“I need help unloading,” Uncle Tony said from the open doorway. White clouds drifted from his nostrils, his breath like thin smoke. Mickey zipped up his jacket, jammed his hat down on his head, covered his ears with the hat’s padded earmuffs, and grabbed a pair of work gloves from a box on the floor. The week before Christmas was a good time for finding useful trash and when Uncle Tony went out early in the morning he always returned with the station wagon crammed full. Sometimes he’d have a chest-of-drawers lashed to the top; or an old stove that could be fixed; or a filing cabinet or some other piece of furniture. He usually found a strong kid or unemployed adult to help him hoist things atop the car and unload when he got home.

But with two weeks off from school, Mickey was there to help. Smiling in anticipation of the dollar or more he’d get for the work, he lugged a wooden crate to the back of the store, returned to the car parked at the curb and got another load. A rusty metal cupboard tied to the top of the car gave them no trouble to get down. It wasn’t heavy, just large, with wide doors that flopped open on squeaky hinges.

“Some sandpaper and filler,” Uncle Tony said, as he leaned back and assessed his find, “and we’ll sell this for five bucks.”

“At least,” Mickey agreed, visualizing the cupboard covered with bright blue paint.

The usual assortment of burned out electric motors that Uncle Tony got from a factory he frequently visited, angled pipes and plumbing fixtures, old radios without any tubes inside and wires dangling out of place, a bowling ball and assorted metal cases: they streamed from inside the station wagon, a treasury of discarded goods to transform into valuable merchandise.

“What’s this?” Mickey asked, intrigued by the heavy red metal machine in a cardboard box, which he carried so its sagging bottom didn’t give out. At the back of the store, he carefully placed the box on the work table.

“It’s a projector,” Uncle Tony said, and pulled the red machine out of its box. A tall rectangular housing held a light bulb. Two arms jutted from its base and Uncle Tony demonstrated how they held the reels of film threaded on sprockets and cranked past the light, sandwiched between two thin squares of glass. One square was cracked. As was the lens in a metal tube that tracked back and forth on a notched bar. The crank to advance the film was missing.

Mickey checked one of the boxes of film. Its faded label depicted two clowns cavorting with a tiger. “Circus Call,” was the title. Another was called “Mittle and his Fiddle.” There were two others in plain boxes without titles.

“They’re old movies,” Uncle Tony said. “You want to fool with it, go ahead. Fix up a work bench over there.” He gestured at a corner near the door to the shed.

“Don’t worry. I won’t get in your way.” Mickey put the projector back in its box and carried it to the corner. Uncle Tony sat at his table and took out his cigarette making machine and a can of tobacco. The red metal machine had a curved hump covered by a cloth apron that ran from one end to the other.

Sometimes, Mickey was allowed to help make cigarettes. He’d take a couple of pinches of tobacco from the can and drop it into the well made by pushing the apron down against the roller attached to the lever, which he’d move up over the hump, pulling the apron and roller along with its captured tobacco. At three inches or so from its starting point, he’d insert the cigarette paper. He’d wet the glue with his tongue and slip the unglued side of the paper lengthwise into the apron. A quick pull on the lever to traverse the hump and a fully formed cigarette popped out at the other end.

“Guess I need a new apron,” Uncle Tony said when the cigarette he’d made came out with a tear. He salvaged the tobacco, took another piece of paper and rolled a cigarette by hand. When it was lit, he examined his machine and its apron and used his fingernail to scrap off some of the tobacco pieces that had adhered to the cloth. In some places, the apron was torn and the red metal peeked out through the hole.

“Do I get a quarter today?” Mickey asked, though Mom often told him not to ask his uncle for money.

“Sure do.” Uncle Tony dug out two dimes and a nickel. Mickey took it with a smile and a “Thanks!” and hurried upstairs. He needed to count his money because he planned to go Christmas shopping. He’d been wondering what to get Uncle Tony and now he knew. Mom was easy to shop for, because she liked the glass jewelry they sold at the Five-and-Ten.

Hands in his pants pockets, a sweater and jacket to ward off the chill, Mickey rambled south on Front Street to the stores on Kensington Avenue. Some of the houses and storefronts were decorated for the holiday with wreaths or lights or twisted branches from an evergreen tree. Mom would be taking out their artificial tree soon. She’d put it in the living room and decorate it with tinsel and small glass bulbs. She’d for Christmas Eve. Mickey always wanted to help, but she never let him. She didn’t invite Uncle Tony to help, either. This was her job, she claimed. She called it her “special joy.”

Later, she’d drink red wine with Uncle Tony and they’d talk about being kids in South Philadelphia, growing up in a house teeming with children and adults, with aunts and cousins living only a few doors or a block at most away. Mickey often wondered what had happened to all these people, whom he had never met. He met his grandmother twice, or maybe three times. She lived in an old house with a dark room crowed with mismatched pieces of furniture.

 Mickey glanced into Herlicksmann’s Grocery when he passed. He didn’t see Marsha and guessed she was at her job. Her mother and father stood up front, at the cash register, scanning the sidewalk for customers, Mickey imagined. He waved a greeting, but the elderly couple only stared back. Mickey wondered what Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Tanasdof did during the winter, since they couldn’t sit outside to talk and play chess. Was Mr. Jacobs allowed inside? Did the two old men have a special place to meet when the weather spoiled their routine? He wondered what they did when it rained in the spring. He imagined a large hall with small tables with checkered tablecloths and waiters bearing trays of coffee, like the place Uncle Tony once took him to meet another uncle, a robust, cheerful looking man named Sal. Did Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Tanasdof have such an escape for themselves?

As he neared Kensington Avenue and the elevated tracks, a train screeched overhead. Brakes squealed. Metal grinding against metal made an insistent roar that forced Mickey to cover his ears. Most of the shoppers didn’t seem to mind the elevated train’s intrusion. They darted from store to store, with children in tow, some with their arms full of paper bags crammed with wrapped presents.

Passing the public library, which was housed in a large storefront corner building while its new home was being constructed a few blocks away, Mickey considered going inside to find a new book to read. He didn’t like to bring the books home, because Mom would be angry if he lost one and she had to pay for it, so he usually read at the library. There was a quiet reading room set aside just for that. Children weren’t allowed in that room, but sometimes the librarian made an exception for him.

Looking in, Mickey didn’t see Miss Gallio, the librarian he liked. Instead, there was one of the older ladies who worked there. She never spoke to him, even when he smiled and said hello. Gray haired, with puffy faces, dressed in blue or gray or dark green, the other librarians looked like the mean sisters from Cinderella, and Miss Gallio was forced to do all the real work.

Whenever she was at the library, she’d flutter from one task to another, putting away books, handling the check-out line, or answering questions posed by the visitors.

Four Five-and-Ten stores graced the avenue, two small ones crammed with a variety of merchandise, from towels and toilet water, to crafts materials and toys. Two larger ones with large toy departments that were fully stocked even when it wasn’t Christmas. Mickey preferred Grants, which had a second story devoted to kids – toys, clothes, hobby supplies. During the shopping season, though, the store employed a guard who chased away any kids who weren’t with an adult, so Mickey visited Grants only when he came with his mother.

Woolworth’s offered a lunch counter. For a nickel, Mickey could buy a fountain drink. A dime bought a tuna sandwich on toast. For a quarter he could have a sundae. Whenever he got paid both by Mrs. DeMarco and by his uncle, he treated readily squandered fifty cents on drinks, ice-cream and sandwiches.

Mickey shut his eyes as he passed the women’s underwear department at the front of the store. He headed for the jewelry section. A pair of purple earrings cost three dollars. That would leave him another dollar for Uncle Tony’s gift. But, as he studied the jewelry, and traded smiles with a man in a brown suit who watched him, something glinted in the corner of his eye. He turned halfway to his left and looked down the aisle at the house-wares section.

A passing family momentarily blocked his view, their heavy winter coats like a curtain descending on a play, their boots squeaking. When they passed, Mickey walked towards the sign that read “Household.” Standing upright, folded together to take up less space, were wire shopping carts with large, rubber wheels. The kind he often saw other moms wheeling from the grocery store. Sometimes children helped tug them along.

Ideal for shopping, it was a gift his mother would use. Dozens of earrings and mounds of fake pearls and cut-glass necklaces, along with shiny rings and studs lay piled in a cardboard box he’d made with her as a fifth grade arts-and-crafts project. But when she went to the grocery store or to the Front Street Meat Market, she always carry her groceries home, her arms so full that she complained that they ached afterwards.

The price tag read four dollars. Mickey had that much in his pocket. It represented several weekends of not going to the movies. But if he bought the cart, how would he get Uncle Tony a gift? Christmas was just two days away.

Mickey counted his money. Four dollars and thirty-five cents. He looked at the price tag again. A matronly woman came to stand beside him. He looked up at her and asked, “How much with tax?”

“Now aren’t you a good boy,” the lady said in an accented voice that showed she didn’t come from North Philly. “Bet you’re buying this for your mum.”


     Mickey got home well before Mom came in from work. He grabbed two brown paper bags from their niche between the refrigerator and the wall, retrieved the jar of mucilage from under Uncle Tony’s work table, and wrapped the shopping cart present. The handles and the wheels stuck out, so she might guess what it was, but Mickey still thought she’d be surprised. He relished the idea of Mom beaming with joy. No more carrying heavy bags home from the store. No more sore arms.

He hid the shopping cart in the basement, but far enough from the coal bin that it wouldn’t get a dusting, especially if there was another coal delivery before Christmas.

     Uncle Tony’s gift was still a problem, but Mickey thought he knew how to solve it. Maybe the pipe and tobacco store where they sold cigarette making machines would sell him a single apron instead of a pack of three for a dollar. He had a quarter, plus some pennies. How much could a single cloth apron cost?

     He hurried back to Kensington Avenue, to Al’s Pipe and Tobacco Shoppe across from the el station where several trolley car lines converged. Mickey never knew which of the two men who worked in the store was Al. They weren’t friendly to him. Perhaps because he never bought anything and usually only came with his uncle. The few times he’d been there on his own was to buy something that Uncle Tony wanted, and for that he always had a note stating explicitly what it was – some brand of tobacco, usually – and money in an envelope.

     None of the men would sell him a single apron. Mickey asked to speak to the owner, Al. That caused the men behind the counter to laugh, until one of them got angry and chased him out of the store. Confused and frightened, Mickey ran down Kensington Avenue, turning south when he should have turned north. When he stopped, he was across the street from Grant’s.

     Maybe he could make an apron.

     He crossed the street and looked in Grant’s large display windows decorated with Christmas scenes: fake snow and rocking chairs and evergreens and piles of presents with large bows and bright paper wrappings. This was the only Five and Ten where he could buy a strip of oilcloth to use for an apron. It was also the only store that didn’t welcome unescorted ten-year-olds.

     Mickey went over to one of the men in suits sitting atop a raised platform at the front of the store.

     “I can’t find my mom,” Mickey lied. “I hafta buy something, but I can’t find her.”

     The man peered down at him, his wide face and large glasses paired to incongruous curly bangs. “What do you want, kid?”

     “I have to buy some oil cloth. How much can I buy with twenty-five cents?”

     “You lost?”

     “Yeah,” Mickey lied.

     The man waved to a woman in a velvet vest and dark skirt. “This kid’s lost,” Suit said.

     “I’ll take care of him, Mr. Rudders,” the woman said. Her white and black name tag read: Beatrice.

     Mickey had an idea and said, “I’ve got an Aunt Beatrice.”

Beatrice smiled. “Do you? And what’s your name?”
”Mickey Arden.”

“Okay, Mr. Arden. What we’ll do is use the loudspeaker in the office and call for your mother.”

“She’s not in the store. I just need to buy something special and I didn’t know where else to go.”

Beatrice didn’t lose her smile, which was made of lipstick smeared over thin lips, eyes darkened with makeup, cheeks bright with rouge.  

“How much oilcloth can I get for twenty-five cents?” Mickey asked.


Fashioning an apron for the cigarette-making machine wasn’t difficult. Mickey cut the patch of oilcloth to the right size and stitched a fold at each end to make loops for the metal rods that held the apron in place. Other than that, the hardest part was making the new apron exactly long enough. There had to be enough material to cover the hump of metal that the roller traversed to fashion the cigarette, and just enough material for the tobacco well between the roller and the metal plate.

On Christmas Eve Mom came home from work later than usual, a large shopping bag under one arm, and she went directly to her room. Later, she emerged with the box containing her tabletop tree and the various ornaments she’d collected over the years. Uncle Tony contributed a box of tinsel and a carved wooden star that he’d made as a boy. While Mom decorated the tree and warded off either her brother or Mickey when they attempted to toss some tinsel on a branch or fix an ornament that wasn’t hanging properly, Christmas music played loudly on the little 45RPM record player in her bedroom.

At some point in the evening, Uncle Tony went out to buy a bottle of whiskey at the Front Street “State Store,” the Pennsylvania owned and controlled liquor outlet. Jammed back on holidays, the line of men snaked out the doors, down the steps and almost to the corner of Front and Kensington several hundred feet away.

     Even Mickey got a taste of what Mom called “Christmas Cheer.” Watered down, just a small amount in a shot glass. But it made him feel warm inside.

     Uncle Tony and Mom sat across from one another at the kitchen table, drinking and talking about the past, Mom crying, even Uncle Tony wiping tears from his eyes. As usual, as the evening came to an end, Uncle Tony got on the phone and called their sister or their brother or some uncle or aunt about whom they’d been reminiscing. These conversations were short, pointed, and Uncle Tony looked angrier than before once he hung up the phone.

Mickey took that as his cue to retire to the bedroom. The two adults, he knew, would continue to talk and remember for the rest of the night and might eventually wind up sleeping at the table, the whiskey bottle drained, and perhaps one or two quart-sized bottles of beer emptied as well.

     In the morning, Mickey was up early. He was glad to find that Mom had gone to her room. Uncle Tony was in the living room, on the sofa, snoring, his shirt off, his shoes on. The small Christmas tree sat on its usual table by the window, its papery branches laden with silver strips of tinsel and weighed down by small glass bulbs. On the floor were a couple of gifts. One for Mickey. One for Uncle Tony. Mickey ran down to the basement to retrieve the shopping cart he’d bought his mom. He had the apron for Uncle Tony’s cigarette-making machine hidden under the mattress of his bed. Wrapped with Sunday newspaper comics, it looked colorful and cheery.

     He put them on the floor by the tree, and then poured a bowl of cereal, which he took into the living room. He sat on the floor, turned on the television and, the sound down low, watched the early morning children’s shows. After a while, bored, he grabbed a handful of his comic books and sat reading them in the living room, on the armchair that Mom liked.

     Soon, he heard her moving about in her room. Out of the corner of one eye he watched her pad across the hall to the bathroom. He listened to her retch and curse. Then she ran the water. The toilet flushed. She came out of the bathroom with her face glistening, though her cheeks were slightly pale.

     “Uncle Tony still asleep?” she asked, looking at him asleep on the sofa. Mickey nodded. Mom went into the kitchen and made a pot of percolated coffee. She returned with a cup for herself and one for her brother. She switched on the television, tuned into a news program, and turned up the sound.

     Uncle Tony stirred.

     “Here’s coffee. Merry Christmas,” she said.

     Uncle Tony sat up. He rubbed the stubble on his chin. He took off his shoes and massaged his feet. His socks were white and dirty and there were holes in the heels. A faint odor wafted from his feet and Mom laughed and pinched her nose with her fingers. Uncle Tony tore off his socks.

     “I’m not doing no laundry on Christmas,” Mom said.

     “I don’t care.” Uncle Tony took his coffee from the table in front of the sofa. He sipped it. “Good,” he said. “You made the real stuff for once. That shit you drink during the week is terrible.”

     “I know. I ain’t got time for anything else.”

     Uncle Tony glanced at the tree. He smiled at Mickey and gestured to him and said, “Go. There’s a present or two for you in that pile.”

     “You, too,” Mickey said.

     Mom put down her cup and leaned towards the tree and the present in the brown paper. A white slip of paper taped to the wrapping said, “To Mom.”

     “That’s for you,” Mickey said.

     Uncle Tony found his present from Mickey immediately. Just as Mickey expected, he said, “Hey, I can read the funnies right here on the wrapping paper.” Then he opened the package. He studied the apron, looked puzzled at first, then seemed to realize what it was. “You made this, didn’t you?”

     Mickey nodded enthusiastically.

     “Good job, Mickey. Good job. Look at this, Joanne.” Uncle Tony showed her the apron. “That’s really something.”

     Mom fingered the wrapping on the shopping cart. She pulled some of the brown paper away. She revealed more of the handles. She tore off more of the paper and threw it towards the center of the room. She yanked the cart up off the floor, all of it now free of its wrappings, and shouted, “What kind of present is this? A shopping cart? You want me to go shopping? This is my present?” She threw the cart aside. It hit the table in front of the sofa and knocked a cup full of coffee to the floor. The mug broke.

     “I thought you wanted one so you wouldn’t have to carry stuff.”

     Mom kicked the broken coffee cup out of the way. She picked up the shopping cart, ran to the top of the stairs and threw it down the steps. “There, Tony. There’s another useless piece of shit for you to sell.”

     Mickey blinked. “But you said you wanted one.”

     “I never said that.” Mom stamped her foot, then lunged at Mickey. She stood over him and shouted, “You think that’s something I want for Christmas?”

     “You can use it, can’t ya?” Uncle Tony ventured.

     “Stupid. Both of ya, just stupid. Stupid people I got around me.” She kicked the remaining presents lying on the floor. “Stupid.” She wailed as she ran into her bedroom, slamming the door shut behind her.

     Mickey wiped his nose with his sleeve. He wiped his tears away. He didn’t look at Uncle Tony. He didn’t want to look at anyone. He didn’t pick up the two remaining gifts lying on the floor, though both were for him. He ignored them and went downstairs and checked if the cart was okay. One of the wires had broken loose and the plastic handle was cracked, but the axel for the wheels wasn’t bent from the fall.

     “I can fix that,” Uncle Tony said, indicating the broken wire. “I can solder it.”

     “Maybe we can get a buck if you sell it,” Mickey said. He folded the cart and leaned it against the wall, next to the radiator.

     “One of those presents’ from me,” Uncle Tony said. “Know what it is?”

     “What?” Mickey asked in a quiet voice, afraid that if he spoke too loud his Mom would hear and come roaring downstairs at him.

     “A silent movie. For that projector you’re fixin’ up. You know, we can sell that for a pretty penny.”

     Mickey went back upstairs, to change out of his pajamas. He’d look at that old projector and figure out how to fix it later in the day.

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