Everyone has a Christmas story, here is mine. In 2012 I took a writing course at Loyola University. For the first assignment the instructor asked, “Write about something in your life”….
“Christmas Eve in the deserted parking lot of Western Auto with a mass murdering black atheist”
Christmas Eve in the deserted parking lot of Western Auto with a mass murdering black atheist does not seem like the best Christmas memory, but as I grow older, it is.
I got into this situation due to my summer job as a salesman/stockboy at Western Auto Supply, a chain that is now defunct but at the time was known not only for auto parts but also as the neighborhood store for furniture, appliances, lawn mowers, televisions and bicycles. I had worked there the summer after high school to earn enough money to go to college – I had a scholarship for tuition and room, but not for food, so funds were needed. The store was located in a poor, black neighborhood next to the railroad tracks and the store provided credit so we knew everyone’s business. All my fellow employees were black and my boss, Joe, liked to say he was putting a white boy through college. Joe had been a salesman for Western Auto for 19 years before a lawsuit, and corporate’s need to show affirmative action, caused upper management to replace the white store manager with Joe that summer. When they made him manager Joe informed us he planed on winning the New Orleans outstanding manager title that year even though the other managers had a six month head start. The winner got a bonus at the annual manager’s Christmas Eve Breakfast and this ranking was determined by the number of “white hats” a manager received which was a weekly award based on comparative store sales. The weekly winner was photographed in a white cowboy hat, and since Joe becoming manager that summer, Joe had been the winner most weeks. When I dropped by the store the day after I got home from college, and five days before Christmas, Joe said “Let me take you by the hand and show you pictures of a black man wearing a white hat” and the wall was full of them. Joe was almost certain to get the bonus that year. He told me he really had to have good sales that week to make sure, since his old boss and nemesis had the exact same number of white hats, and that is where I, and John Charles, were going to come in.
John Charles had shown up at the store the day before I had saying he would work for cash. The question on everyone’s mind in the neighborhood was why he had shown up at all. Some 40 years ago he shot dead three men in the old pool hall across the tracks and had spent those intervening years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. No one could remember anyone that was living in the neighborhood when the murder occurred, and the ladies of the area speculated on why he would return since he had no family, nor were the families of any of the men still there. But this was not the major reason to talk about John Charles – the subject on the ladies’ tongues was he was a black atheist. Whether Joe hired John Charles because he needed work, or he hired him because he knew people would come to the store to stare is unknown to me – what I do know is that he was a subject of conversation. Mrs. Maybelle, who functioned as a nurse at her congregation for those overcome by the holy sprit, and who I got to know when I installed her window air-conditioner that summer, told me it was permissible for white people to be atheists but not black ones. She told Joe that a black atheist, working so close to Mahalia Jackson’s final resting place up the street in Providence Park, was sacrilegious. Furthermore, John Charles was dark around his blue eyes and lighter on the rest of his skin – giving him a raccoon like look – which highlighted his eyes and gave him a piercing stare. Mrs. Maybelle told Joe if he was going to continue to employ John Charles that it would be better for him to work with me since white people had a natural resistance to the evil eye.
Joe already had plans for John Charles and me in his strategy to win his final white hat and bonus, which is where this story starts. One thing people in poor neighborhoods want to make sure doesn’t happen is that their kids have as lousy of a Christmas as they did. To ensure this, they start layaway in the summer for their children’s Christmas – and that summer I had put a lot of bikes on layaway – so many that bike boxes filled a section of the stockroom to the eighteen-foot ceiling. Joe’s plan was to call all of the people who had bikes on layaway and have then pay for them by the end of the sales week on December 23 – thus guaranteeing his White Hat, and winning the yearly bonus at the Holiday Breakfast on December 24. Where John Charles and I came in this plan was that we were going to assemble and sell all the bikes remaining in inventory, as well as those in layaway that paid for assembly ($25 extra which went straight to sales), thus guaranteeing a high sales figure for the week. Joe dialed the customers to tell them to come in, John Charles and I assembled, I sold them on the floor, and bikes flew out the door. We assembled bikes from 8 AM to 5:30 PM in the stockroom, and as we did we talked. John Charles knew a lot about literature, science and philosophy explaining that he had a lot of time to read in his life. The days passed quickly with John Charles and me talking and assembling, mostly John Charles asking if I had read this or that, and when occasionally I had read something he had – he would then quiz me on it. Not about the content like my professors, but what I thought it meant. Once during those days Mama and I were driving one evening and I saw John Charles by the side of the road and offered him a ride. Mama was very impressed with him and suggested after we dropped him off, that if it would not offend him perhaps she could get him to do some chores around our house. At that point I had to tell Mama about him being a mass murderer and all, but surprisingly she was not upset at all like she normally would be. Mama was the librarian at the school and the school was closed that week for Christmas so I could use the car – and I started to drop John Charles off after work.
At the close of business at 6 PM on December 23, we had reduced the pile of bikes to just a row of boxes, and Joe said, “I got that white hat won”. We still had one more business day, December 24th, and Joe told us when the store opened he would wear his white hat all day. That day, Christmas Eve, was a day I always will remember.
When we arrived that Christmas Eve morning Joe was not only wearing the white hat, he was waving the bonus check and telling us we were going to have a real party that year – not the cookies and soft drinks of his previous 19 years at Western Auto. “Smirnoff , Michelob, food trays from Schwegmanns, poboys from next door and maybe even some Chinese food” was what Joe promised at closing that evening. He even promised a bag of peppermints for me (Joe, for some reason, thought that white people loved peppermints and could not get enough of them).
Then the phone started to ring. Joe had called everyone on the layaway list to make his sales by December 23, but now those that had not gotten their bikes were calling back. It was Christmas Eve and those that still had bikes in the stockroom wanted to know what they could do so their child could have a Christmas.
We were a neighborhood store and Joe had worked there for 19 years, so he knew the story of each person who had a bike on layaway. As the phone rang, Joe began to go to the stockroom and ask me to bring out the box for that person. He would look at the box, some for a short time, some for a long time, then go back to his office. We were busy that morning and around 11AM Joe cashed his bonus check from the register – $1000. He said he did not want to keep too much cash in there since the bank was closing early. It was around the same time he asked me to get Mrs. Small’s bike out that she had put on layaway for her granddaughter with me that summer. Mrs. Small was a widow on a small pension from the Catholic school system where she had been a cafeteria worker for forty years. As was typical during that time, her daughter had fallen in with a bad crowd and this left Mrs. Small to raise her granddaughter – a very sweet girl with a learning disability. I recalled that summer how happy she was when she sat on the bicycle in the store and the next day, Mrs. Small coming in and asking me to help her put it on layaway. Mrs. Small had just been in last month because she needed a new refrigerator, the old one of 22 years having given out, so she was in no condition to pay for the bicycle. Yet she told me Joe had just phoned the main office and found that this model bicycle had been discontinued and therefore her current layaway payments already covered it.
I told John Charles about this, in hopes that his atheist heart would see this as a Christmas miracle, but he just said, “let’s get this one done quick, there will be more,” as we assembled the bike. There were more, a lot more, as people continually came in, many with the same story of Mrs. Small. It was around 2 PM when I was at the front of the store and happened to see Joe putting money from his pocket into the register after another layaway sale.
I realized what was going on and went back to the stockroom to tell John Charles. He just smiled and said,“I was beginning to wonder if college took away a man’s intellect”. About the same time Joe came back into the stockroom, but this time he had a list and as he looked at the boxes and the list we realized that he had to decide which child would have a Christmas and which one would not for there were many more children in need than his bonus could cover.
I looked to John Charles for support, but only got that amused stare, what Mrs. Maybelle called the “evil eye.”
My first inspiration was to free myself from eating the entire bag of peppermints that were waiting for me if Joe’s Christmas party went off as planned since I did not want to insult him by indicating my people were not fond of peppermints. Joe had budgeted for the party, and I thought I could save that. The butcher next store, Mr. Polotski, and I had a good relationship – I had gotten the reclining chairs for his anniversary expedited that summer and his assistant Eli, who John Charles insisted on calling by his full name Elijah, was also a friend of ours who would hang out with us in the stockroom. Mr. Polotski had already said John Charles and I would be welcome at this party later that day, so I decided to call on him – which was easy enough to do since his back door was outside of our stockroom. I had never entered that way before, and Mr. Polotski had all of the saints displayed in the back with a picture of Lech Walesa next to them. I told him the situation and he laughed and said I had convinced him that all Irish did not have black hearts. Ten minutes later he was in the front of our store telling Joe how offended he would be if all of us did not join him for his Christmas celebration. When Joe hesitated he said, “Eli is going to be the first black butcher in this neighborhood, shouldn’t the first black manager join him on Christmas Eve?”. Joe couldn’t argue with that.
I sat down in the stockroom with John Charles feeling quite smug. He looked at me and said , “Those two have done all they can do, what are you going to do?”
I don’t know even today what gave me the inspiration, perhaps it was my business classes, or an understanding of Joe’s pride, but I got up and went to the front of the store to Joe and said, “Boss, we could sell a lot more of these bikes if we did not charge the $25 assembly fee. John Charles and I were talking it over, and neither one of us has much to do this evening, and we could put the bikes together out in front of the store after it closes.”
Joe looked at me, and then at John Charles, and told us, yes, he thought that would be OK. He said it would be alright for me to tell the customers about this too as long as he wasn’t nearby, and if he was nearby I was to scratch my head so he knew to move away. However, we would have to wait in the back alley until after the store closed because as a manager he couldn’t be seen condoning this since it took dollars away from the corporation – but if he didn’t see it, no one could ask him about it. $25 dollars made a big difference to many, and between Joe’s money, and what they could come up, by the 6 PM close every bike was gone from layaway.
I called Mama to tell her I would be home late. As Joe locked up the front of the store, John Charles and I sat in the back alley and then went around the front of the store to spend our first and last Christmas Eve together.
Parking lots after stores close are desolate and dirty – you never notice how much paper and trash there is until all of the cars are gone. John Charles and I sat in front of the store with our plastic tub of parts and our tools and waited for the first person to arrive. It wasn’t long and by 6:15 we had four bikes in front of us. John Charles and I worked out that we could assemble a bike in eight minutes if all the parts were there, if they were not it took longer because we had to dig in our tub for the missing ones. We were assembling a bike about every 10 minutes when at 7 PM the lights in the parking lot went out. None of us had ever stayed that late at the store, so we did not know the lights were on a timer. While we had the lights of the streetlamps, they did not provide the amount of light we needed for assembling bikes. Which is when I realized I had a solution in the car.
That first semester at college I often ate at the cafeteria twice for dinner on Friday because there was no free meal plan over the weekend and I had little to spend for food, but broke or not, I wanted to give Mama something nice for Christmas. Mama always had a formal Christmas breakfast for me with silver and candles and she loved Bayberry candles. I did not have much that Christmas for her, but I had purchased two boxes of bayberry candles at Adler’s Jewelers and had them giftwrapped just like they did for their jewelry. I thought I could probably provide enough light with candles, so I got them from the car and John Charles picked up some bottles in the parking lot to put them in, and soon we had enough light. John Charles said they smelled good too.
So there we were siting on the pavement assembling bikes by candlelight surrounded by single mothers and grandmothers who had worked and saved for months for a child’s Christmas. People offered us tips, or food, but John Charles told them when we said it was our Christmas gift we meant it. It was around that time that one of the mothers mentioned we didn’t have any music and John Charles allowed we did not have a radio, and even if we did we didn’t have a place to plug it in. The lady said she could sing, and John Charles said that would be nice, so she did. She started with Jingle Bells which everyone knew, and as we made bikes, people sang – Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Harold Angels Sing, Away in a Manger, First Noel, Go Tell it on the Mountain and Silent Night. People came in waves, sometimes there would be a lot of people and a lot of singing, sometimes it would be just a few people who would stand in silence, and a few times no one at all. Some people just saw a crowd and didn’t want to be lonely and stood around. It was during one of the lulls when it was just us that John Charles would ask me what I thought of the meaning of this or that song, what the man was thinking about when he wrote it. I thought this would be a good time to witness to John Charles being he was an atheist on Christmas Eve, but he seemed to know a lot more about the songs than me. For example, he knew Silent Night had been written in Austria by a priest and went though it line by line discussing with me what it meant. It was after one of these lulls that Mrs. Maybelle showed up with her grandson’s bike. Mrs. Maybelle, being a church nurse, did not sing, she read scripture instead. So she proceded to read scripture out loud to the crowd while we worked. After a while John Charles started to complete the scripture passages before Mrs. Maybelle finished them. After she got over her surprise Mrs Maybelle said that even the devil could quote scripture, John Charles looked up at her and said that yes, that was true – which seemed to aggravate Mrs. Maybelle even more – perhaps she thought he was giving her the evil eye.
People kept coming and we kept assembling bikes, some Western Auto didn’t even sell, and I kept putting out more candles until close to 10:30 when John Charles looked up and said no one else would come that night. We waited around just looking at the empty parking lot for most of the hour in silence and then John Charles started picking up the candles and blowing them out and putting them back in the boxes. As we got in the car and I was driving him home, I mentioned that no one thought it odd that we were surrounded by candles that night. He said a lot of houses tonight have candles – you pay the electric bill in the summer so you can have a fan, but in the winter you need gas for heat. He said many could not pay both at the same time, so tonight many families had candles for light. I mentioned it must have been candlelight for the first Christmas and he said the weather was about the same then too.
I didn’t know what to say when I dropped John Charles off that night him being an atheist and all. I thought Merry Christmas just wasn’t right and there was a lot I wanted to tell him, but he just looked at me and said “those candles smelled really nice…your mama is waiting” and walked toward the back of the building where he lived.
Mama met me at the door and said she wasn’t worried about me because even though John Charles was a mass murder and all she felt that I would be safe with him. I sat and told her all of what happened that day and with some tears I showed her that the two boxes of candles I had bought her and the pretty wrapping paper they had been covered in. Everyone one of them had been used. She said that there was still a lot of light in the candle stubs and we would light them Christmas morning.
Our last Christmas together Mama and I visited Austria and the Silent Night Chapel and I thought about all of those people from that Christmas. Mama did too and on Christmas Eve as we were coming back from midnight mass in Salzburg, Austria she asked me if I remembered the Christmas Eve I spent in the parking lot. After Mama died I found the boxes of candles with the words Western Auto and John Charles written on the outside of the box by Mama. I still have the candles and this Christmas I will light one and think of Mama, John Charles, Joe, and all the others from that Christmas of long ago.
Denver Mullican, 2012.