When my husband was in graduate school in Connecticut, we didn’t have a car. Our second year there, one of his friends offered us the use of his car while he flew home for the Christmas holiday season. We gladly accepted the offer and decided to go to New York City to see the decorations.
We left early in the morning on Christmas Eve, arriving in the city at about 10:00 a.m. The in-town traffic was, as usual, horrible, but not much worse than it usually looked when we had been there before – although not with a car. We drove around for about an hour, gazing at the store windows and other outdoor decorations. We found a parking garage near a subway station and parked. I wanted to see the fabled Macy’s Christmas department.
Macy’s store decorations were as lavish as their Thanksgiving Day parades that I had watched every year from the time my family got a television until, with marriage, I no longer had access to one. We wandered around, feasting our eyes at many of the sales counters, until we found the toy department. It must have been the export terminus from the North Pole workshops. And, of course, Santa was there. He was magnificent. There were many excited children bouncing up and down in anticipation of seeing him, and while some of the parents were smiling, most looked harried and exhausted.
We explored Herald Square, visiting Saks Fifth Avenue, Gimbel’s, and J.C. Penney’s department stores, all of which were larger and more lavish than any stores I had been in before. We even found a little sidewalk food stand selling hot roasted chestnuts. At Christmastime, Daddy always had spoken about how, when he was a boy, he would stop at a chestnut stand and buy a bag of hot chestnuts for a penny. He grew up in Pennsylvania and Colorado and liked them not only because they were good to eat, but because they kept his hands warm while he walked home from school. In the week or so before Christmas, he would find raw chestnuts in the grocery store, bring them home, and roast them. He was right: our hands were cold even with gloves on, and the bags of nuts warmed our hands, but they cost about 100 times more than he paid for them.
We took the subway to Times Square, which we thought was grubby and not particularly exciting save for the little Italian restaurant where we had dinner. After retrieving the car, we drove to the Columbia University area, parked and walked to a dump of a hotel, the College Residence Inn. We had previously stayed there during non-winter months for $2.00 a night in their “penthouse,” the only room on the roof of the building. This incredible price, even back in 1962, was for a reason: there was no glass and no screen on the room’s windows. It was high enough in the air that there were almost no flying bugs and only an occasional, probably accidental, visit from a pigeon. We could see the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, all of which had smokestacks billowing black clouds of smoke.
The room clerk asked us if we were sure we wanted that room. Well, it fit our meager pocketbook, and it wasn’t that cold outside. We had to wait about 20 minutes for the room to be made up for us. That should have given us a clue, but we were oblivious. There wasn’t any heat, of course. It was late, the shower was hot. The bathroom was steamy and comfortable as we dressed for bed, where there were extra blankets. We were exhausted and went to sleep immediately.
I woke up about 5:30 a.m. because I was so cold. I turned on the light. Everything in the room, including what I could see of my husband’s face, was covered with a light coating of very black soot. I rousted him out of bed. We turned on the shower for the steam, washed our faces but saved the after brushing residue in our hair for when we got home. He went and got the car, and we started for home.
The dawn was just breaking when we left the hotel. We were in the only car on the street. A few blocks away, we found a little bagel and coffee shop that was open. We ordered the lox and cream cheese bagels and got a copy of the New York Times newspaper. We stayed there long enough to warm up, since the car didn’t seem to have any heat.
Back in the car and only a few blocks later, snow started to fall. It snowed all of the way home. There was almost no traffic on the highway, and snow plows were busy. It was my first white Christmas, just like the ones I never knew.