Remembrance of a special Christmas.

IN 1936, Joe and Lillian had been married for 12 years, and Joe hadn’t had a job – a steady job- for the last four of them. It was the Depression. You might work for a few weeks or a few months, but the day always came when the boss pulled you aside and told you how sorry he was to have to do this.. .and you was out on the street again.

Somehow Lillian had managed to keep things together for her and Joe and the boys -Edwin, nearing his 11th birthday, and Will, their 7-year-old. Somehow she paid the $6 rent each month for the little house on Page Street in Oak Cliff. She kept her clothes clean and discreetly patched and, as she put it, respectable. Joe, when he got any kind of work, brought everything straight home to her, quick as he was paid. He told his friends that if Franklin D. Roosevelt would put Lillian in charge of this country, she’d have it out of the Depression by the Fourth of July.

It wasn’t that Joe was a sorry worker or that he was dishonest or lazy. Give him a chance and he’d work 10, 12, even 14 hours a day without complaining. Joe hadn’t finished high school, but he wasn’t the kind of a man would embarrass you working for you. He never came to work in a dirty shirt or a frayed collar. And he never would, Lillian said.. .not as long as she had a rub board or could thread a needle. Joe was polite, his grammar was passable-there just weren’t many jobs in Dallas for men like Joe.

By Christmas of that year, Lillian had achieved the miraculous sum of $10 in their savings bank, which, in the best tradition, was a sugar canister -the one her mother had given to her to start housekeeping on when she and Joe got married. Most of the $10 had come from the two weeks she’d worked at the Jefferson Street Woolworth when Mrs. Mosley had her operation. Ten dollars! And now Joe had a job at the Grand & Silver store downtown at Main and Akard. It was hard work at Christmas, of course. The boss took it for granted you were willing to put in a couple of extra hours a day. But it meant their first turkey in two years for Christmas dinner; it meant candy for the boys’ stockings instead of just an orange or an apple and 50 cents for a little fir tree from the Totem store.

Edwin was the problem. Edwin needed a bicycle badly-so he could start making money: 85 cents a week helping Billy Pen-nington deliver the News on Sunday mornings and the Journal after school. Billy’s route was up past Kidd Springs Park, so Edwin almost had to have a wheel. A new bike was out of the question; an aluminum Silver King ran $30, and a balloon-tired Schwinn wasn’t any cheaper. But Grady Cole, who went to church where they did and worked at the big Sears store on South Lamar, told Lillian if she’d come down, he might be able to get her a repossessed one for nine or 10 bucks – but she’d have to pay cash, and she’d have to wait until the very last night because the store had a policy of not selling repossessed goods at Christmas until the former owners had every chance to redeem them.

Lillian made arrangements with Mrs. Herschel next door to keep an eye on the boys while she was gone, and Christmas Eve she was there. Sure enough, Grady wheeled out a nearly new (it looked to her) red bike, with fenders, for just $7. It was a slightly out-of-fashion model with high-pressure tires, but it was shiny and sturdy.

Lillian took the bicycle out to the trolley stop and asked the motorman if she could take it aboard the streetcar to town. He was a big, jolly fellow, and he asked the rest of the passengers, “Reckon we ought to let this young lady bring her bike aboard?,” and a man sitting in the front seat winked at her and said, “Yeah, if she’ll ride it up the aisle to show she knows how.” The motorman helped her get it on the car, and she stood at the back, out of the way, holding the bike. People getting on and off smiled at her, and some of them said little things like, “Santa Claus bring you that?”

The streetcar arrived downtown as Grand & Silver was closing, and the motorman helped her take the bike off. She showed Joe the wonderful bargain she’d gotten for $7, even if it didn’t have balloon tires, and he said it sure looked like a new one to him.

“Let’s celebrate,” she said as she squeezed Joe’s arm. “Let’s treat ourselves to a plate lunch at the B&B Cafe.” She giggled, “I’ve got better than $2 left in my secret hoard.” Joe grinned and said, “Look at this,” and handed her a $2 bill. “We had such a good Christmas, Mr. Fingburg gave all the clerks a $2 bonus-even me, and I haven’t been there but a month.” “Oh, Joe,” she grabbed him and hugged him, right there at Main and Ak-ard. “This is going to be the best Christmas we’ve ever had.”

The B&B Cafe, which was just down the street from Grand & Silver, stayed open all night, even on Christmas Eve. She asked Mr. Lucas, the owner, if it would be all right to park the bicycle inside the café while they ate, and he said he guessed so, the crowd was thinning out. They had the 39-cent plate, which was really more than Lillian could hold, and Mr. Lucas came around with some kind of special Greek candy and wished them Merry Christmas “on the house.” Getting a free dessert made them feel a little less guilty for spending so much money on themselves.

They pushed the red bike toward Commerce Street, where they could catch the Hampton car. It went across the river to Oak Cliff, out Jefferson to Tyler, turning on Burlington. If they got off at Burlington and Montclair, they would only have to push the bicycle a couple of blocks and be home.

But disaster struck. As they reached the Magnolia Building corner, a wild-looking young man seemed to come out of nowhere and grabbed Lillian’s purse. The old leather handle was so worn that it popped right off.

Lillian screamed and Joe yelled, “Hey, you…,” and started chasing him, but the man darted into an alleyway behind the Adolphus Hotel and disappeared. The thief had planned well, and Joe returned empty-handed, with Lillian yelling all the time. “Honey, come back…. please come back.” They looked at each other helplessly. All their money was in her purse, even Joe’s $2 bonus bill. Grand & Silver was locked up tight. There was nobody they knew in downtown Dallas. “Do you have some streetcar tokens to at least get us home?” Lillian asked Joe. “I used my last one coming to work,” he told her.

Suddenly the night wind was chill as they stood on the corner, gusts sweeping through the canyon that the tall buildings at Commerce and Akard formed. Traffic was thinning, but now and then a laughing group would come out of the Adolphus or the Baker Hotel, reminding them it was Christmas Eve, and even the heavy rumble of the warm trollies mocked their plight. “I hope that lowdown thief breaks his neck,” Joe grumbled. But Lillian shook her head. “Don’t say things like that, Joe. Our money’s gone, but maybe it will go to make somebody else happy.”

“Yeah, for a bottle of wine or worse…. or I miss my guess,” Joe griped. But she put a finger to her lips to silence him. “Now, we mustn’t take that attitude, Joe. God gave us the money in the first place. We wouldn’t be standing here if it hadn’t been for a miracle -the Woolworth manager letting me fill Mrs. Mosley’s job, and Grady Cole finding us this bicycle.”

Then Joe looked at Lillian, and a grin broke over his face. “Honey, we don’t need a streetcar. I’ll pump you home on our new bike.”

Lillian smiled. “Joe Dozier, we’re not that young anymore. Why, it’s a good five miles home.” Joe shook his head. “Five miles? I’ve ridden a bike farther than that, many a time.” “Yeah,” she said, “when you were 16 years old.” She rolled her eyes and said, “And not pumping your overweight wife.” “Listen,” he said, “I love every ounce of that overweight wife. Besides, you’re not overweight; not by more’n five or six pounds.” “Joe Dozier, you’re just awful!” she said. He straddled the bike. “Get on. That extra padding will come in handy.”

Lillian looked around to be sure none of the hotel revelers was looking. She jumped up on the crossbar, but whispered to him, “Oh, Joe, what will people think, seeing somebody our age riding a bicycle around town on Christmas Eve? They’ll know we’re drunk.” “They’ll wish they were us,” Joe said. “Now, get comfortable.”

He pushed off and pedaled along Commerce, downhill and easy. “This beats the streetcar,” he said. “And saves us 20 cents,” she said. At first, Lillian buried her face inside her coat, she was so embarrassed to be seen. But Joe took one hand off the handlebars and lifted her chin with it. “Hey, look up here. You ashamed of your husband?” She promptly sat up and turned her face to the night wind. Suddenly, it felt wonderful.

“Joe,” she said, when a big four-door sedan honked. “Wasn’t that the Burghers? Wasn’t that their Studebaker? They’ll recognize us from church.”

“I hope it was,” Joe said. “Wish I had me a Santa Claus suit on. That’d make it perfect.” Joe coasted the bike. “This is a sturdy machine. Easy to pump. I wish I was a boy again. I’d ride it all the time.”

They rolled down Commerce and turned on Houston Street. As they passed Union Depot, travelers were coming out the front doors, and someone yelled “Merry Christmas” to them. Lillian waved and called, “Merry Christmas to you, too.” “Have a nice trip,” someone else yelled, and laughed. Joe had to pump hard, going up the viaduct over the river, and a car slowed down alongside them and a man hollered, “Grab hold of my rear fender, and I’ll tow you across.” “Better not risk it,” Joe said, “but thanks anyway.” “Well, Merry Christmas, then,” the driver said, and moved on.

At the middle of the long viaduct, Lillian said to Joe, “I wish you could look back and see how pretty Dallas is.” “Well, we’ll just pull over here and look,” he said. Several buildings had Christmas lights burnishing their rooftops, and one had the outline of a big Christmas tree done in lights. “Oh, Joe, isn’t it beautiful? Even if things are hard-up.”

At the Oak Cliff end of the viaduct, they passed the Cliff Tower hotel; several well-dressed couples were going inside to a party. “Merry Christmas,” Joe called. Lillian heard a woman exclaim, “Look! There’s a woman riding a bicycle. What fun!”

Every block someone would call, from an automobile or from the sidewalk, “Merry Christmas!” and Joe and Lillian would call back the greeting. “You folks Santa Claus?” a young black boy asked, running along with them for a few yards, and Joe answered, “Yeah, and we’re late.”

“Christmas is such a good time,” Lillian said. “I’ve never seen so much of it before, so many different people. I’m going to remember this Christmas the rest of my life.” “So am I,” Joe said, puffing hard as he pumped. “I wish I could help,” Lillian said. “Besides, this bar isn’t exactly a pillow, even with those extra pounds of me on it.”

When they turned down Tyler Street, a streetcar came bobbing along beside them as they stopped for a traffic light. Several passengers pulled up their windows to shout “Merry Christmas,” and one man said, “Hi, good lookin’, you got a present for me?” and Lillian blew him a kiss.

Finally they turned on Page Street and rode along in front of the familiar houses of their block. But this night the little houses had a special magic and were strangely new and attractive. “I wonder who lives there!” Lillian asked. “I’ve never seen a prettier place.” “I’ve never been as glad to see any place,” Joe said. It was their little rent house. Lillian slid off the bar and rubbed her seat. “Ouch, I’m going to be sore tomorrow,” she said. “Sore today,” Joe told her. “It’s after midnight. This is Christmas.”

Mrs. Herschel was still up, and Lillian went over and thanked her for helping with the boys. When Lillian got back to Joe, on their front porch, they embraced and she kissed him. “Oh, Joe, this is the best Christmas we’ve ever had, even if we did lose our money.” Her voice softened. “We’ve not gotten to do things by ourselves in so long. Let’s don’t tell how much fun we had. It’s our private celebration.”

They got the bicycle inside without waking the boys. Lillian found a rag and polished the red machine until it glistened like an ornament beside the tree. Next morning, Edwin’s eyes filled with tears of joy when he saw it -even with the front tire flat from its long ride of the night before.

THE STREETCARS are gone now, and the Grand & Silver store is gone, and Lillian and Joe moved from Oak Cliff many years ago -and Lillian is gone, too.

And Edwin and Will and the grandchildren can’t understand why Papa Joe won’tlet any of them go with him on ChristmasEve, when he drives slowly around Dallascalling “Merry Christmas!” to everyone hesees along the way.


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