When I was a little shaver, my mother told my siblings and me the heartwarming story of a mother with many children who had killed herself on Christmas Eve. She put her brood to bed with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads then turned on the gas oven and laid down under the Christmas tree among the presents. That’s the way her children found her on Christmas morn. As a child, I wondered how she could bear to kill herself before opening her presents. But, with every passing Yuletide, I understood more and more why that mother had checked out in such ghoulishly festive style.
Christmas is a burden. A time of testing. A time of taking stock. And, woe betide anyone who comes up short. The pressure to be happy is overwhelming. Everywhere there are the iconic images of Santa, sleigh bells and snow; everywhere the glowing fireplaces, twinkling trees; everywhere the perfectly wrapped presents and perfectly formed snowmen.
And, the U.S. Post Office is one of the major purveyors of this Christmas myth via its nostalgic stamps and “mail early” missives. So, imagine my chagrin when December of 1970 found me working at the “Christmas coal-face” aka Grand Central Station Post Office – one of the largest Christmas card sorting offices in the world.
This was a time before emails, texting and twitter when people mailed each other Christmas cards to such an extent that the P.O. had to hire seasonal workers to handle the Xmas deluge. We sorters were buried under red and green envelopes for weeks and had to work tons of over time to make a dent in the never-ending flow.
I was then living in a dreary studio apartment in a dreary Brooklyn neighborhood without even a dreary girlfriend. Sadly, I couldn’t afford a Christmas tree to commit suicide under. (Hell, I could barely afford to pay my gas bill.) I needed the O.T. so I worked all the hours the P.O. threw at me. And, even though the Post Office closed for Christmas Day, I did have a shift on Christmas Eve.
That magical, candy cane night brought a heady party atmosphere to the usually grim sorting floor. The shift bosses cast off their usual Scrooge demeanours and donned elf hats and light-up reindeer horns. Most terrifying of all were the ancient workers (male and female) who stalked the sorting aisles brandishing sprigs of Mistletoe. These creeps had never smiled or spoken to me all year but were suddenly wagging their egg-nog-coated tongues in my direction.
The obese Black women who were “union-job-for-lifers” had years before commandeered certain sorting aisles as their private turf and held “INVITATION ONLY” office parties in them. They jealously guarded their paper plates covered with baloney and their Ritz crackers covered with aerosol cheese while they quaffed bottle after bottle of Colt 45 and Night Train.
Meanwhile, an oldies radio station blasted the usual rock & roll “Christmas classics” on heavy rotation. It also played Air Force radar reports of a mysterious, manned flying object that was tracked leaving the North Pole and headed for New York.
Just shoot me.
When our 4AM lunch break came, we were called to an open area where many of us climbed atop the towering mail machinery and dangled from it like Marxists seizing the means of production.
The sadistic fat-fuck who ran this P.O. suddenly appeared in a cheap Santa suit and arm-twisted a few of the obese Black women to sit on his lap. This much racial fraternization was a rare thing in 1970s America. Cue: A rash of awkward jokes about negroes and Noel.
Mercifully, several other obese Black females appeared in full Gospel choir drag to serenade us with their screeched renditions of Silent Night and We Three Kings. They finished their set with a sing-a-long of White Christmas. Cue: more forced racial jokes.
Then the back to work bell sounded putting an end to this Happy Holidays horror. At the end of my shift, I headed for the subway through a deserted Grand Central Station and wondered where I could buy a Christmas tree with gas jet attached.