By Ron Kokish
Of course there’s a Santa Claus. I saw him up close in the Bronx, in 1959, in the employee bathroom at Alexander’s Department Store. We stood silently, as men do at adjoining urinals, finished our business and returned to our work: he to the Children’s Department on the second floor, I to Women’s Blouses and Sweaters on the third. Mr. Claus likely never thought about this non-event again. I did.
I was the spoiled, smart and smarty-pants only-child of struggling Jewish refugees who barely made it out of the Third Reich before the worst began. We lived in a tough Manhattan neighborhood because my father wanted to be close to his small business near Times Square, because he loved Vienna and New York was as close as he could get without being gassed by the Nazis; and most importantly, because it was a neighborhood we could almost afford.
The sound of gunshots was not uncommon after dark. “It’s probably the Puerto Ricans,” Dad would say (usually in German). I thought it was more likely the Irish, because the Puerto Rican and Italian kids didn’t terrorize me so much at Public School 94. But it didn’t matter.
Kids in all those groups had gangs they could join, starting in fourth grade. They wore jackets with their emblems sewed on and wide belts with sharpened buckles. Some of them had spring-loaded pocket knives and even zip guns.
They were children of immigrants too, but the gangs offered them a way to belong. I knew one other Jewish kid, but he wasn’t raised speaking German and learning to waltz, so we didn’t form a gang.
I felt alone, lonely and scared on my first day in kindergarten and felt even more so when I graduated with near-perfect grades six years later.
Junior high and high school were lots better for me, but I was still totally unprepared for the Ivy League social scene I encountered at Cornell six years after leaving PS 94. The hallowed halls and uniform freshmen dorms far above Cayuga’s waters were unfamiliar, very different from the inner city. I missed the friends I’d finally made during the previous six years, and I was afraid to start over with real American kids who were, I thought, mostly richer, mostly smarter and certainly cooler than me. I was always clumsy at dating, and with four guys for every girl at Cornell, I was afraid to even try. No one scapegoated me, but without a home to hide in after class, it was worse than PS 94. It was the unhappiest nine months of my life, and when it was over, I was on academic probation.
In June, I went home to my parents, my friends and a wonderful young woman I’d met during Christmas break. I worked days, made up grades in two courses at night and spent every minute I could with my friends and girlfriend. I knew I wasn’t going back to Cornell and wondered whether I needed college at all. When my summer job ended, I went to work as an assistant manager at Alexander’s, which is how I ended up in the employee men’s room with Santa some three months later.
When I saw him there, doing what I was doing, taking about as long as I did, looking as “relieved” as I was, zipping his baggy red trousers just like anyone else — when I saw all that, it struck me.
Like a bolt of lightning, it struck me. Santa Claus is basically like me! Then, in my mind, I began mentally replacing his visage with Clark Gable, Dwight Eisenhower, Mickey Mantle, even with rich kids at Cornell . . . They all urinated like me. We are basically alike, every inner-city kid, every refugee, every person everywhere. We are basically alike.
If the insight was sudden, its impact was not. I went back to school, but not to Cornell. It took at least 15 more years to develop enough mature confidence to begin acknowledging the arrogance that sometimes still protects me from myself.
It took longer to regret feeling embarrassed by my parents because they were poor refugees, superficially different from the successful Americans whose acceptance I craved. It took even more time to realize that I always had that acceptance (except at PS 94) but didn’t feel it until I began accepting my refugee heritage and myself.
I’m still working on all that and probably always will be. But this wonderful, unfinished process took a giant step forward in that men’s room, standing silently at the urinal next to Santa’s as he gave me the present I was wishing for. I don’t think he knew, but maybe he did. Maybe I’d been good that year.
Thank you, Santa. You ARE real. Ho, ho, ho, and a Merry Christmas to all.
Mature Content is a monthly feature from the Carbondale AARP Age-Friendly Community Initiative (CAFCI).