Traditions come easy over the holidays, and I guess the following is becoming one of them. As a young man I had a bit of a Scrooge Christmas with what you might call three visitations. The story about it that I posted here and in my global newsletter (Sullygram) a few years back brings much response, reprints and requests to see it again each Christmas season. I’m happy to oblige…
Christmas cuts like a knife sometimes. By any name holidays make us keen to emptiness and omissions because they demand just the opposite. Sometimes that takes the form of self-pity, sometimes it is expressed in charity to others, sometimes we are too busy celebrating to notice what’s right before our eyes. When I was a young man there was a Christmas when I experienced all three. That was the Christmas I wrapped up a box of hate and gave it to myself, then opened it to find love I could give to someone else.
There have been circumstances — bound in some way to a place or a period of time — that have taken my compassion to another level and made me a more complete writer. Such a time and place was a bitterly cold Christmas when I was living in an old men’s hotel filled with human wrecks. It was a hotel for very old men, indeed. I was 19.
The Lawndale was $7 a week the first year I lived there (no, it wasn’t during the Civil War, though it did burn down eventually). Could’ve fled back to the ‘burbs of Detroit for the holidays, could’ve found a home-cooked meal. But I was proud, stupid, and a little too martyred when I was actually in that horrid coffin of a room, which was not often. I was doing selfless things gratis for others, I thought. And I was a bit of a maverick, not succeeding where everyone said I was supposed to succeed, nor given to letting my emotion show over the failures. Never mind that I got a million dollars’ worth of self-pity out of it. I knew that writing was an option that was open to me, but I had the camera pointed in the wrong direction. It was pointed at me. I think a lot of writers start out like that.
When I did have to return to my room at the end of the day – four walls I could almost touch all at the same time – I tried to be numb. Do you know anything as seething with emotion as trying to be numb? Or as blinding? I hated the Lawndale with such a passion that I was deaf and blind to the human misery and loneliness there, and more importantly for a writer, equally walled off from a lot of incredible stories. In this case, the walls were paper thin, and you could hear the moans and the groans of the dying and the drunk. There were unwritten laws peculiar to males at the Lawndale. If someone came in beat up and bleeding, you might hear every drop of blood dripping on the vinyl runner in the hall, but if you opened your door, the gasping stopped. In that mistrustful place, you didn’t flinch before a tiger. No quarter asked, none given. Fine with me. The people I cared for didn’t live at the Lawndale. The place made my skin crawl. Above all, I hated the man across the hall.
All the rooms were as tiny as mine, but unbelievably the man across from me had a roommate. I never saw the roommate, never wanted to, but I had a picture in my mind of a pathetically submissive creature completely enslaved by the brute I did see. The bully would come in, drunk and wheezing, and thirty seconds after his door clicked shut the vilest verbal abuse I’d ever heard would begin. Sometimes it went beyond that, and I’d cringe to hear the blows. But I never quite got the guts to go stop it. Part of the code, you know.
Thus I lived, and so a new Christmas morning came, and with it the hollow feeling that I was, in fact, truly alone. I know now that this is absurd, particularly in a world teeming with emotionally isolated people. But when you are young, there is nothing emptier than the suspicion that your self-pity is justified. I had less to my name than $10 that morning when I set out in my wreck of a car, the “Grey Ghost.” My destination was the White Tower, a.k.a. the Porcelain Room, for a “scudburger” Christmas dinner.
I don’t remember if there were any other customers at the counter, but I vividly remember the old lady scraping the grill. She was celebrating, you see. Celebrating. Not sitting at the counter waiting to be served, celebrating. It took me a few minutes to come down to that and catch the irony. I had to quit staring at my reflection in the glass opposite first and realize that all the photos strung along a green ribbon on one wall were probably her children and grandchildren. She shuffled back and forth with the gait of someone with fallen arches and arthritis. And, damn, she was singing. And she had on a silly Santa hat. And there was red and green bric-a-brac and fake snow and angel hair all over the place. A wrapped present, too, though you could see there was just fluffed paper in it. Don’t remember finishing that scudburger, though it ranks right up there with memorable cuisine. No doubt I was having a little trouble swallowing at that point, because if a grandmother had to work on Christmas day and could be like that, then I had to stop just taking from her and give something back, and I didn’t have anything nearly that good. The scudburger had knocked my $10 in half, so I left a $5 tip and got the hell out of there.
It was compulsive, and by no means charitable, but I felt better cranking the Grey Ghost to life and starting up Livernois toward Vernor Highway. Are you with me? Here’s where life starts to improvise on the lesson I just learned. Hoarfrost was on the inside glass of the White Tower, but out here it is arctic, and as I’m approaching the railroad tracks, I see a man in a cardboard box. His head is cut and swollen, blood frozen in his hair, and he’s barefoot. Lawndale rules do not apply in train yards, and the poor bastard, who it turns out has just crawled out of a freight car, is going to freeze very quickly, so I stop. He tells me the old story: got drunk, rolled, left to fate. What strikes me is he is naked inside the cardboard box. I mean, the rollers took everything, as if out of malice to let him die. You can’t imagine the blubbering gratitude of a Tennessee man up to visit his sister at Wayne State, who just about becomes a vice-icle when his binge turns bad. It took us a couple of hours to find his sister’s apartment, because he didn’t have a clue, except by scrutinizing every neighborhood as we inched up and down the narrow streets off Woodward. Merry Christmas.
So now I’m feeling pretty good, except that I have to go back to the old men’s burial ground and re-visit self-pity. Oh, I’d been a good lad for a few hours, and learned something, but like a movie, it was over. So the Lawndale ate me up as I climbed to the second floor and the last room in the line – 210 – which was odd, because later in college I would be in room 210, and again, teaching at Fordson High in Dearborn, 210. Anyway, now that I was back in you know where, you know who came in on my heels and started you know what. The bully was on a tear this time. Drunk, vile and violent. I stood it as long as I could, and longer than I should have by months. Then, when I thought he was going to kill his roommate with the blows, I went out into the hall to stop this creature I loathed.
Thought I was going to have to fist his door a couple of good ones, but as it happens it was slightly ajar. He was berating his roommate with terms I cannot hint at writing here, and I could hear the smack of flesh on flesh, and as I took two steps toward the wedge of light, I saw it all. The mirror. The face in the mirror. The whole room behind him in the mirror. The marks from the fists were clear on the cheek above the stubble. And I saw the last blow land. But the testosterone boiling in me suddenly went as flat as water. Because he didn’t have a roommate.
He was beating himself. Berating himself. Calling himself everything but a child of God. Nothing I had felt or thought about him all those months could approach the depths of his own self-hate. How could I have been so wrong? An epiphany moment for me? Yeah. You could say. Damn my soul if I ever underestimate any human that badly again, though, I’m sorry to admit, I’ve been over the line too many times since. My self-loathing neighbor slammed the door when he became aware of me, but he opened another to my future as a writer.
I’m not a soft touch. I believe in human excellence and transcendence, if only we can get outside of whatever boxes imprison our thinking. Low expectations cripple people, and are really a vote of no-confidence. It doesn’t matter what that man at the Lawndale lacked. What mattered was what he had, which was a mirror filled with more self-honesty than most of us can stand. He knew who he was. What he was. And at that moment I knew what he could be. I can’t tell you what truths you’ve discovered about yourself or about the human condition, but I know that they will come out in your life one way or another. You may have to look outside the box to find those truths first, of course. Writers need to engage in that search with openness and vigilance. Good writers never stop searching, or evolving. If people have happened to you today, stories have happened. The world presents us with limitless possibilities. Find the ones you can reach, according to who you are. Until you do that, you have not fulfilled your own potential as an observer, as an artist, or as a human being.
I’m most grateful for your interest in my novels. If you’d like a stocking-stuffer or low-cost holiday gift to top off your giving this year, may I suggest the e-book edition of my historical novel CASE WHITE: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00O79GQTE
And for those of you who prefer a print edition, CASE WHITE is currently scheduled for print release in mid-January 2017!!!
Wishing you the warmest of holidays and the happiest of New Year’s….
Thomas “Sully” Sullivan
You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com
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