While I ordinarily write about personal experiences, my favorite secular Christmas story was told to me in the mid-1980s by a guy I met at a chill midsummer Saturday night party of college-educated twenty-somethings in one of those tall apartment buildings in Hackensack, New Jersey that one sees stretching in a line while looking north from Route 80. The building was the kind that young people move to when they start getting white collar jobs and making decent incomes after having paid some education and employment dues.
At the time, these people were derisively called “yuppies.” The host, who had previously worked with my girlfriend, served wine, cheese and bottled beers with unfamiliar names in a spacious, softly-lit living room leading onto an upper floor balcony with a view of the Manhattan skyline. Like the stuff served and the setting, the guest demographic was also new to me. But the attendees were pleasant enough.
The late-twenty-something storyteller, whose name I don’t remember—maybe Paul — had short, light brown hair and was about six feet tall and of medium build. Looking slightly out of place at this party, Paul wore the white button-down shirt and had the no-nonsense mien of a retail store manager who had just finished the 2–10 PM shift. As the protagonist, he told this story with calm sincerity to me and another person.
A few years earlier, in the early 1980s, Paul had in fact managed a Toys R Us store in Mt. Vernon, New York. During that period, Mt. Vernon resembled some other old, mid-sized East Coast cities: it was too small to have a national reputation for violent crime. But if you knew the New York City Metro Area, you knew that Mt. Vernon bordered The Bronx and had far more than the national average of homicides.
Similarly, in 1982, I worked as a door-to-door milk deliveryman in Paterson, New Jersey neighborhoods that felt like Eleven O’Clock news stories waiting to happen. Because I collected payments from customers, I had with me multiple hundreds of dollars on streets with many empty lots and abandoned buildings. Carrying a stack of cash in these locations puts a target on you. Trucking milk while wearing this target, I earned a well-below-yuppie five dollars/hour. But I needed a job in that bleak economy, so I pretended I didn’t have a college degree, woke up at 3 AM, rode my bike four dark miles to the fridgehouse, packed my truck and tried to get along with people.
It turned out that my premonition about the hazards of carrying cash in Paterson had a basis. A year later, in December, 1983, my parents’ next-door neighbor, who delivered bread there, was shot point blank, dead in the head while resisting, with a baseball bat, a robbery by a pair of fifteen year-olds with a powerful handgun.
By then, I had given up my milk truck for law school. I had had enough years of hard, low-wage jobs and was trying to become a yuppie. It seemed better than being shot in the head. Most of the time.
Back to Paul in Mt. Vernon. Capping a busy Christmas shopping season with weeks of long days and nights, Paul had to work all day on Christmas Eve. Business was predictably brisk. When night fell and the store closed at 6 PM, Paul was tired and highly motivated to go home and be with his loved ones. Feeling peace and joy that the frenzied shopping season was over, Paul traversed the sales floor and entered the store’s storage area on his way to the loading dock adjoining the building’s rear. He wished his co-workers a Merry Christmas, sent them home and had to ensure that the store was properly locked before he left.
Approaching the loading dock’s metal door, he heard someone thumping its other side. Thinking it might have been a straggling employee who had been placing some trash in the dumpster, Paul opened the door.
A bundled up urban male in his late twenties, quickly stepped through the door and brusquely said, “I need a bike.”
Paul replied, “I’m sorry, but we closed ten minutes ago. I need to go home and be with my family.”
Undeterred, the trespasser reached into his jacket and pulled out a large, powerful handgun and pointed it at Paul. “Look, man, I need a bike.”
Paul was stunned. After quickly refocusing, he was eager to survive to share Christmas Eve dinner with his family and was suddenly willing to bend some rules.
It occurred to me as Paul told his story that there may have been thousands in cash in the store’s safe and that both he and the gunman knew it. That target thing again.
He asked the gunman, “What kind of bike do you need?”
“Something for an 8 year-old boy.”
Paul and the gunman walked through the store and quickly selected a bike and hauled it back to the loading dock.
As they reached the door, the gunman paused, turned to Paul, and asked, “How much does it cost?”
Dumbfounded by the question, Paul replied, “Uh, ninety.”
The gunman pulled out his wallet, reached into it and handed five twenties to Paul.
The satisfied customer smiled and said, “I didn’t want to steal it. I just needed a bike. Merry Christmas.”
As the ultimate last-minute shopper carried the bike into the cold and dark, Paul closed and resolutely locked the door behind him.
And to all a good night.