The Christmas Cards are mailed. The Christmas gifts are bought and wrapped and either in the mail or under the tree. I’m feeling so virtuous it’s almost indecent. But the suspense and the excitement is gone. Back in the day …back out amongst the throngs on Christmas eve doing last minute shopping… braced by the excitement in the air and the jostling crowds … Rockefeller Center all decorated and alight …the windows of Saks across the street dressed like movie sets and the sound of singing coming from St. Pat’s on the corner…time running out and the hint of snow in the air –ah, that’s Christmas shopping.
I was new in New York, brought up from Ravenswood (population 3,500) West-By-God Virginia to handle the corporation’s public relations in the media capitol of the world and taken in hand by two big city boys who knew the drill — one, a gregarious, wisecracking, streets-smart writer for UPI named Bob and the other a man-about-town, always first at the best restaurants and the new plays and my counterpart at our most fearsome competitor, the mighty O’Connell. They took pity on a country boy, for what reason I don’t know but am eternally grateful.
We were on a quest that Christmas Eve – a quest for Chatty Cathy. She was the doll of the year, sold out everywhere. None to be had. Made no difference. My young daughter had to have her and I’d been told by my wife to not come home unless she was with me.
We started at the Bull & Bear, a bar downstairs at the Waldorf not known for stocking the kind of dolls that are put under Christmas trees, and worked out way downtown to a little pub on a corner of Berkeley Square, checking likely emporiums along the way. Nada. Zip. There wasn’t a Chatty Cathy to be had in Manhattan.
Not to worry I was told by my knowing chaperones.” She’s hiding at Macy’s.” A light snow began fall as we headed back up town. At Macy’s it was shoulder-to-shoulder mayhem. Most of the men where on the same hunt as I. “No” said the first clerk. “Not a chance,” said the second. “You’re out of your mind,” confirmed the third, “been sold out all week.”
At which point up rose the city boys. “Macy’s is never out of anything,” they confided. “The trick is to pick the right sales clerk.” They rejected the pretty, perky, fashionably dressed young things, shied away from the steely-eyed matrons all business and cranky, in fact wrote off all the females on the floor. The were looking for a man. The right man. An Irishman. They spotted him standing by a counter, his hands clasped in front of him, smiling as the harried hustled by. He was a little past middle aged, a little rotund, dressed nattily but not fancy. He wore a bow tie, and unlike all the others, seemed to be enjoying the maelstrom. “There’s our man,” they agreed.
The two of them surrounded him, insulating him from the crowd and the hub-bub, a look of sorrow and despair on the their faces. I couldn’t hear what was said. It seemed a mistake. He kept smiling but shaking his head no. Until they both leaned in, one to each ear, and whispered. He froze for a moment, stepped back and looked directly across the room at me, then turned and left them standing there.
They came and got me, grim faced. “Don’t say anything, just follow us.” We shouldered our way quickly through the throng to a side door and stood there waiting for what I knew not. Then the clerk appeared. He shoved a package wrapped in plain brown paper into my hands, nodded to me with a tear in his eye, and walked quickly away.
We pushed through the revolving door out to the street and the night. I looked at them questioningly, cradling the brown paper package in my arms. “Chatty!” Bob said. “Kathy!” finished the O’Connell, bursting out laughing. “How,” I said, disbelieving.
“We told him you were terminal. That your last wish was to be able to give your cherished daughter the doll she so dearly wanted, wanted her to remember you as the father who she could always count on, that you could then die at peace on Christmas Day.” “You’re kidding,” I said.
Draping his arm over the O’Connell’s shoulder, with snow falling gently and the bell of the Santa Claus on the corner tinkling softly, Bob, as New York Irish as they come, said grinning, “Never underestimate an Irishman when a sad story well told has him by the heart.” The O’Connell beamed. “Give is a few minutes and we can bring tears to your eyes, boy. Anyway,” said he, “they’re never out of anything at Macy’s.”