The Strines were an Irish Catholic and Italian family of five who lived at the other end of the hall. Russ was a year younger than I and Tracy a year older. Beautiful Holly was a few years older and so we never got to be close although I always liked and trusted her. The three of us younger kids spent a large chunk of our childhoods' in each other's apartments or in the hallway hanging out together. We spent so much time that sibling-like spats were eventually common. But we'd get over it, come knocking and rejoin forces in distaste of our common enemies, restlessness and boredom.
The narrow hallway was dim and bleak and we'd sit on the brown and tan tiled floor and talk for hours, play Rummy or go-fish, or run and slide in our socks. We'd sometimes retreat to the stairwell which felt a bit more covert and on which we could engage in talks of questionable decency, chase each other, slide down using our asses as sleds and employ the natural and long reverb with ghost noises, screams and songs. I raced down and up those stairs multiple times each day for more than a decade and it was there, my voice embellished with a city-block of echo, that I first fancied myself a singer.
Many of our evenings were spent in one of our apartments, in pajamas, playing games or watching television until we got tired of one another or a parent came to remind us that it was a school night.
While Russell and I played and fought like brothers, I was much closer to Tracy. She and I shared an unending love of TV and of music. We sang songs from A Chorus Line and Jesus Christ Superstar together and acted out scenes and little comedy skits. One involved me standing behind her with my hands sticking under her arms, hers behind her back. She'd speak and I'd spontaneously gesture, waving my hands and pointing around. It was great fun and we seemed to share an uncanny synchronization. While putting on a show for my mother, I didn't realize that I kept on touching Tracy's quickly evolving, twelve year old chest and the extreme expressions on her face, trying to remain in character but considering a new boundary, made my mom pee in her pants. I had no idea what was so funny until mom explained it to me later that night when she laughed so hard that she again had to excuse herself. I was embarrassed and delighted all at the same time, and clumsily apologized to Tracy the next day when we both had a good laugh as well.
They went to St. Nicholas of Talontine Catholic school receiving what I assumed was a higher quality education than us public school kids. I didn't know from church bazaars, big fun holidays, or the giving or getting of multiple gifts for any reason whatsoever. They wore uniforms and I thought this evidence of how serious and superior their education must have been. They looked like little business men and ladies in contrast to the second-hand hippies and food-stamp vagabonds attending P.S. 201.
For several years I shared in the Strine Christmas rituals of putting up the plastic tree and decorating it. One year someone there had won a kitten at a church event. We'd just placed a round of ornaments when little Mikey came dashing through the living room, leapt half way up, scampered and clawed his way to the top bringing the whole tree crashing down. Concerns for Mikey's well being notwithstanding (and remembering that this predates the internet) this was the coolest thing I'd ever witnessed.
When the tree was complete I'd make my way back across the hall, the flashing lights, vibrant bickering and festive music muting to a dreamy quiet as soon as their front door closed, and brace myself for the disappointing constant of my own apartment. I'd enter to the dimly lit relative vacancy and walk to the couch where, if Dad was awake, he'd be watching war documentaries or Wild Kingdom while picking at his cuticles with his pocket knife. He'd pat his thigh as an invitation to lay my head there and I probably would. Our electric menorah would be sitting in the window, plugged into an extension cord and humbly exclaiming among the thousands of project windows, most adorned with colorful Christmas lights or through which we could see a well loved tree, that here lives a Jew. Looking out the window during this season there were Jesus loving folks for as far as the eye could see. In their midst I felt an odd, non religious kinship with the occasional windows in which there shone the orange or blue bulbs of a menorah. To me, these weak beacons seemed to unite us in the sad exclusion to which we were banished and expressed neither the celebration nor the privilege that the bolder, brighter and more festive lights did for these other, fortunate households. The evidence was clear. We were the others. They were the chosen ones.
One year my father, perhaps detecting my sense of deprivation, brought home a small evergreen plant and declared it a Hanukah bush. I loved this idea and with my parents' permission (and a particular skill for decorating as I'd done my time interning with the Strines) I began to prettify the sorry array of twigs and needles with ribbon-cut glossy magazine pages, pulled strips of cotton balls and jewels of rolled up aluminum foil. I felt proud. Mom answered the door to let Tracy in and when she spotted our project I lost any ambition for having it become a ritual. While her smile might have indicated admiration, I read it as pity and all I could think about was the failure before me, how I should have just acted satisfied with my other-ness, and how, once again, I wished I wasn't a Jew.
My fathers' birthday is December 23rd and I once asked him if he ever felt cheated by having a birthday so close to Christmas and Hanukah (as I'd heard was the case with some kids of my generation). He didn't seem to understand the question. For him, neither fuss nor gifts were ever a part of either date.
One December 24th I stayed up late and squatted by my bedroom window. Looking northwest I could see straight to the city and up to the flight paths of passenger jets, always one light just coming into view, always the brightest disappearing on the horizon as it pulled down to the runways at JFK. Various other aircraft were approaching or leaving La Guardia, Newark or one of the smaller airports in Westchester or on Long Island. I watched for a cluster, lower to the ground, possibly with a red light at the lead. Tracy and Russell were asleep and would miss Santa, but I would get a good look long at the sucker. Even if his sled bore nothing for me.
I awoke on Christmas glad for the time off from school and watched morning television shows in the dinette with my mother while eating toasted English muffins and cottage cheese drizzled with maraschino cherry juice. Although there would be no presents for me, and I would have received only one for Hanukah (our eight night ritual was limited to the twist of the bulb in the electric manorah, no prayer, no gratitude, no gift), I felt a guilty warmth when hearing the anchormen report on Christmas delicacies, festivities and traditions. I loved Rudolf. I was mesmerized by the Yule Log. They all seemed to make the world a happier place. It was no ones fault that I was born to the wrong religion.
After a while I'd go to the Strines and sit by as they opened their towers of treasure. I'd be welcome to help tear the wrapping paper off of select packages and would take charge of crumpling it up into tight balls and stuffing them into trash bags for a neater experience in the crowded living room. This was my contribution to their Chrsitmas. I'd touch, try and play with anything I chose and would sit in on the maiden round of whatever new board game the fat man had brought. I'd help put double-D batteries in Russells new this and tell Tracy how nice she looked in her pretty new that. I'd eat cookies and drink hot chocolate and smile and laugh and simultaneously love my friends and recoil in envy.
I wonder what it must have been like for them. I think they felt sorry for me. They knew I was poorer than they and that my family had unique problems. And how strange it must have been for their parents. This most sacred ritual, reinforcing their faith and cherishing their family by spending time in pajamas and adorning them with all manner of material distraction, and here's this pathetic little neighbor kid crashing the party. Maybe they felt trapped by my presence, too neighborly to let my parents know that Christmas morning really was a private affair. Having me over was kind.
Maybe they also felt a sense of duty in allowing me a glance of how their god rolls. To grant me a feel for how the other four-fifths lives. Then when they thought it was enough, they'd send me home to my stoic home across the hall. I wonder if they'd ever talked my intrusions over with my parents. Established boundaries. Decided on a time limit. A controlled experiment drawn up and carried out by a bi-partisan committee. Or if they just played it by ear, allowing it until they thought enough was enough. Thanks for visiting. Time to go. Run along. Theres nothing for you here, little Jewish boy.
Or were my annual trespasses just as confusing and just as tolerated by all parties? I bet. No one knew how it happenned because the kids all just considered it hanging out. Both sets of parents were probably respectively embarrassed and speechless for fear of offending the other.
Discovering that there is a Hanukah of celebration, joy and gifts has somewhat narrowed the divide between Us and Them for me, though I'll never think it reasonable or fair for a people to celebrate exclusivity based on a belief system into which they just happen to have been born. That makes no sense to me at all. Not yet. I don't have that kind of pride. Throughout my life I've admired some beautiful traditions and have thought certain rituals empowering, but I always end up jealous that I'm not one of them: Black, Irish, Sikh, Puerto Rican, etc. Festivities within my own heritage just don't do it for me.
We grew apart in our teens, the Strine kids and me. I moved out and never saw them again. I'd like to thank them for trying to include me in their joy and in their priveledge. But even more, I'd like their parents and mine to know that faced with the choice of either being tempted and teased by all the excellent things I would never have, or to remain safe in the isolation of our joyless home, they made the better choice. I liked seeing my friends happy. I liked surprises and pomp, laughter and old-timey music.
And as much as I toil over the inequities dished out by class, race, religion and other accidents of fate, I kind of do like holiday time. Finally.