Christmas is a special time for many children in the world. Those who celebrate the holiday suddenly remember around Thanksgiving, that they need to be “good” in order for Santa to come on Christmas Eve. The world is filled with suddenly helpful, obedient, and non-fussing-with-sibling, children (laughing)! It’s a wonder that parents don’t arrange for “Christmas”to arrive every month, just to keep children in line!
There are many Christmases that stand out for me. Christmas of 1964 is near the top of the list.
I remember being so extra good that November and December.At seven, I did my chores without being reminded… a first; I brushed my teeth for real instead of just swishing with water; I went outside and ice skated in the park with my friends instead of staying in my room reading as I usually did… I was the model poster child. It didn’t last beyond Christmas when I reverted to my usual “Oh Joyce!” persona (laughing). But that year, I had an extra special Christmas list.
Christmas morning arrived and I leapt out of bed and ran to my parent’s room. “Mommy, Daddy! We have to see if Santa came!” I yelled excitedly. My mommy, who was about ready to deliver my brother at any moment, smiled up at me. “Go look and see, but don’t touch anything until we get there,” she said. I ghosted!
In our living room, I looked across the vast distance,zeroing in on the Christmas tree. Something caught my eye and I turned to the right. “I got it! I got it!” I screamed, jumping up and down. “Santa brought my piano!!!” There it sat, a brand new Lyon & Healy upright piano. I plopped down on the bench and lifted the lid, already envisioning the beautiful sounds I would make, just like the woman at the symphony I’d seen in January. I would be just as famous as she was in no time! Placing my hands on the keys, I positioned my fingers just as hers had been and plunked out the most awful sound in the world (laughing). Stunned, I resettled my fingers and tried again…same mess.
“You’ll have to take lessons, Joyce,” Mommy spoke from the doorway. “Practice and practice and you will play beautifully some day.”
“But I want to play Christmas music for everyone today,” I wailed. “I should be able to play, I watched everything she did.”
“Who did?” Mommy asked, confused.
“The lady with the symphony in January,” I exclaimed. “I want to play like her.” By now, I was crying.
“Joyce, stop. You will be able to play just as beautifully as the soloist at the symphony someday, if you practice hard and do everything Mr. Wooten tells you to do.”
“But I have been!” I explained through my tears. “I thought I just needed my own piano to be able to play better. It should have worked.”
“Oh Joyce,” Mommy sighed, brushing my cheek, “It just doesn’t work that way. You have to focus and practice.”
I slammed the keyboard lid down and got off the bench without a word. Marching across the living room in search of more cooperative gifts!
On my way, I spotted the bike… no, The Bike… the 3-speed English Racer bike that was just like my cousin David’s, only for a girl. Euphoria filled me again, the piano fiasco long forgotten… and I never did playlike the symphony soloist, by the way!
“Can I go outside and ride it? Please Mommy?” I begged, hopping up and down.
“May I, not can I. No Joyce, there is snow everywhere. You may ride when the snow clears.”
“Can I ride it in the basement then?”
“May I… Yes, but not today,” Came her automatic response.
Further frustrated, my eyes landed next on the brand new ice skates with their gleaming white boots and silver sharp blades. Promptly sitting on the floor, I threw off my slippers and shoved my feet into the skates. Already picturing myself gliding across the ice just like the Olympic Skaters we watched every winter. I could hear the roar of the crowd and see myself standing on the 1st Place box with my Gold Medal around my neck. Standing on my brand new ice skates, so much better than the babyishstrap-on ones I currently had. This will make all the difference, I thought. “Can I… May I go across the street to skate on the rink?” I added a big smile, certain that it would make the difference.
“No, Joyce. It’s Christmas morning.”
“Right, so I should get to play with my presents then,” I pointed out. “It’s not fair to get presents I can’t do anything with!”
“Joyce,” she sighed, “Just open the rest of your gifts.”
Turning back to the bounty under and around the ceiling tall tree, I spotted a large box, beautifully wrapped, and grabbed for it. “My Easy Bake Oven!!!” I yelled. “Uncle Cal got it! He got it for me! I’m going to cook wonderful dinners in it!” I looked up at Mommy with a big grin. “I can cook Christmas dinner for you, so you can rest with the baby.”
“Thank you Joyce, why don’t you practice on simple dishes first though?”
“Okay,” I yelled. “I’ll cook something now.” Then I paused.Was this to be yet another gift I had to wait until I could use it… or would this one get me a “pass”?
“Ladies don’t yell Joyce. That’s fine, just don’t make a mess,” Mommy said as she turned toward the kitchen.
“Oh wait! I have to open the rest of my stuff and you and Daddy have to open yours.” She turned back and walked over to one of the chairs to sit.
Mommy watched me open the pile of presents and toys that could have been distributed to an army of children with an indulgent smile. I ripped and tossed paper and bows all over the living room. Daddy came out and sat to watch.
Finally, finished and exhausted, we had all unwrapped the Christmas bounty and exclaimed over every item. Ready to start baking, I turned back to the Easy Bake Oven box, prepared to open it and read the instructions.“Make your list so you can write your thank-you notes tomorrow,” Mommy said over her shoulder on the way to the kitchen to start Christmas dinner. Sigh, always the thank-you notes, Ithought. Bet other children don’t have to do this… just us! I left the living room, headed to my room for paper and pencil to make the dreaded list. It was the same for every birthday and Christmas. Make a list of the gift and who gave it to me. Use my stationary to write a thank-you note to every person… even relatives… get the addresses and stamps from Mommy… put them in the mailbox for the postman to pick up. Sheesh, I already thanked them yesterday when we were out delivering our gifts and I’ll see everybody else when they get here today for dinner. So why do I always have to write and mail the notes?I grumbled inwardly. If I have children,I’m not going to make them write thank-you notes! was my final thought of defiance as I finally returned and started my task.
Later that morning, Nana arrived with hugs and kisses, then Uncle Cal and my cousins, Gigi, Auntie, Grandpa Ed, and a host of other relatives filled our house with laughter and love. Mommy came up to me and hugged me. “I’m going to the hospital to get your little brother or sister now,” she whispered in my ear. “Why is he there? Is he sick?” I asked, having already decided this summer that I would have a brother, not a sister.
“No Joyce, that’s where Mommy’s go so the doctor can take the baby out of their tummy’s.”
“Oh. Okay then. Come back with him soon so I can play with him,” I replied, engrossed in the cake recipe for my oven. She kissed me and left.
The rest of the day was filled with people, phone calls from relatives in other states, and playing games. I plunked out a one-fingered version of Jingle Bells on my new piano, to my disgust and everyone else’s delight. I made recordings of everyone on my new tape recorder from Uncle Cal.
At about 8:30 that evening, Nana came into my room to wake me up. “Mommy wants to talk to you,” she said. “Put your robe and slippers on and come to the phone.” Sleepily, I complied. Walking into the kitchen, I took the phone from Nana. “Hi Mommy,” I sleepily mumbled. “Joyce,” Mommy said, “You hav ea little brother.” “I know. I already told you that I was having a brother.” I replied, hung up the phone, and went back to bed (laughing).
It’s the Christmas Season! I’m in New York City, Times Square. It’s cold and overcast. People are everywhere. The Disney store is packed out. Horns blowing! There’s an excitement in the air! It begins to rain.
There’s a hole in my schedule today. Last night, was the black tie gala I attended with my niece, a student at NYU. Tomorrow is lunch with my publisher and dinner with business associates. Today, in a city of eight and a half million people, excluding tourists and visitors, I’m looking for something to do. The hotel concierge comes to my rescue.
The Lunt–Fontanne Theatre on West 46th is a block and a half from the hotel.
Being in “the business” for thirty years, I seldom get excited about a performance, whether mine or someone else’s. I’m too critical. Seeing things the general audience’s eyes don’t see sometimes makes a theatre performance or film a critical exercise rather than pure enjoyment.
The moment the hidden orchestra hit the familiar opening notes on the guitars and the smooth as gravy voice of David Ruffin slid into, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day….” Motown The Musical was on!
When it’s cold outside I’ve got the month of May. Well, I guess you say, what can make me feel this way? My Girl, My Girl! My Girl.
The audience exhaled! We allowed ourselves to be transported back to innocence lost. I laughed. I cried. I sang. I held hands with the man next to me as instructed by “Diana Ross.” I danced. Yes, I was excited.
The storyline traveled back over the twenty-five year history of Motown. From the founder, Berry Gordy’s reluctance to attend the twenty-five year reunion, back to quitting his job 25 years earlier to establish a music empire that created “Race Music.” The Music of Motown changed minds, touched lives, and took the world by storm. Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smoky Robinson and The Miracles, Little Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, The Jackson Five, The Commodores, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Rick James, Edwin Starr all came alive in the context of their music and its relationship to our lives.
The innocence of songs like ABC, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, I Heard it Through the Grapevine, I Hear a Symphony, Please Mr. Postman, and My Girl, gave way to more serious music like What’s Going On, Ball Of Confusion, War, and Super Freak.
The accompanying dancers and singers dramatized the era’s music and for many of us, those life moments permanently etched in our heads.
Watching the performers, I teared up when President John Kennedy was killed, that memory, taking me back to the sixth grade. There were the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War, first loves, the decadence of the 1980s and more. It was the music many of us in the theatre grew up on and those younger had heard before in movies, commercials, or on someone else’s iPod.
At one point, “Diana Ross,” asked us all to join hands over our heads and sway back and forth to the music. I grabbed the man’s hand next to me. He reciprocated, grabbing my hand and then his wife’s. We swayed back and forth. The Marvin Gaye character sang, What’s Going On. We all knew the words and joined in.
Mother, Mother, there’s too many of you crying. Brother, Brother, Brother, there’s far too many of you dying. We know we got to find a way to bring some loving here today.
What a show!
I left the theatre on a cloud. Walking back toward my hotel, it began to snow. Big, flakey snowflakes, softly floating to the ground. I smiled and thought, “Christmas in New York.” The promo material for Motown the Musical says, “An experience you’ll never forget.” I won’t anytime soon.
Back in yesterday, which is a couple of decades beyond “back in the day,” I was a garbage man. A garbage man? Yes I was, and I’m proud of it, even thankful. Before I became an actor, business owner, corporate executive, etc, my summer jobs were always adventurous. With few business connections, I took whatever job opportunities I could find. While in high school and college, I was a bus boy, a women’s shoe salesman (that was a hoot), worked construction, worked in the Birmingham steel mills, and my favorite summer job; which I did two summers, I was an ice cream salesman, truck, cute music and all. (That one deserves it’s own story).
The garbage man job occurred the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I was not able to find a summer job and a friend of mine told me about the City of Birmingham satellite lot a couple of miles from my home. He told me many of the guys who worked as garbage men were hired on a Monday, got paid on a Friday and if they were not diligent and got drunk on Friday; they might not show up for work on Monday. Thus, on Mondays there were job openings.
I needed a job! We took off walking for the lot.
Keep in mind these were the days before the municipal garbage trucks were equipped with a lifter that picked up the cans and dumped the garbage in the truck. Men working as laborers did the work, working three to a truck one perched on each end of the truck with a man in the middle. There was also a “set out man,” whose job was to walk the neighborhoods before the truck arrived and set the cans out to the curb and a “set back man” who set the cans back in the yards after they were dumped. I became “the middle man” on the truck.
Getting hired was a story in itself. When we arrived, at least 30 to 40 men, all black, were lined up in anticipation of getting hired. A lone white man was inspecting each of the Men. I was in shape for football. He felt my biceps and asked me to step in the office. My friend, bigger than me, was also selected. We filled out paperwork and we were hired. Being hired on the spot was a surprise. There was no application process, references, etc. I was told which truck on the lot to report to and my first day as a garbage man began.
I met the men on Love’s truck. Love was our driver, a nice man who shook my hand and welcomed me to the crew. I met Stumpy and Ricky the two end guys. They told me Hotshot, the set out man, was already out working ahead of the truck setting out the morning’s cans. Bear would follow along behind and set the cans back.
Stumpy and Ricky wore gloves, soft brogan shoes and worn clothes for the days work. Not knowing what I was getting into, I had on converse tennis shoes, jeans and no gloves. Stumpy and Ricky stood on their perches on each side of the truck holding onto the handrails. With no handrails in the middle of the truck, I stood over the garbage hopper on the slippery ledge of the back of the truck, the truck metal cutting into my hands.
We were off for the day.
Traveling along sometimes at 40-50 miles per hour to our neighborhood destination. It was scary hanging onto and sliding along the back of the truck.
Stumpy, a grouch and the unofficial leader of the backend of the truck gave me a worn extra pair of gloves. I thanked him.
We reached the neighborhood and the slow crawl up and down the crowded streets began. Stumpy flew from the truck, grabbed a can with one hand, spun around and slung the house’s garbage into the hopper of the truck.
I was officially a garbage man!
Love maneuvered the truck. The truck never stopped rolling. Stumpy and Ricky, like athletes ran behind the truck, dumping the days waste into the truck’s backside. I ran along between the two men until one of them called out “two,” meaning there were two cans on one of their respective sides. That was my cue. The second can was mine. I struggled. It was hard work, a grown man’s work. There was much laughter and fun at my expense, Love grinned in the side mirror.
They were men. I was a seventeen-year old boy. The laughter challenged me. I wanted to be accepted into their world.
For lunch we stopped at a service station, and the men bought sodas and pulled their homemade lunches from inside of the truck. Again not prepared, without any money, I sat alone and pretended not to be hungry. Ricky volunteered and bought me a soda. Stumpy loaned me money for a bag of chips. We all sat there like grown men, enjoying a quick lunch before finishing our day. Love, the white driver, ate with us, which was rare in those days.
By the end of the day I’d gotten the hang of it. “Two, College Boy,” Stumpy would shout. That was my cue. Stumpy had given me the name, “College Boy,” when at lunch, I had made my intentions known that I was headed to college in a year, a place neither of them had been. Stumpy and I glided to the cans in tandem, pirouetted like dancers, grabbing the cans and let the garbage fly into the truck. It was almost beautiful, poetry in motion. By now, I was smiling.
When we were done, Love pointed the truck in the direction of the city dump. Naturally, I got the job of sloshing into the muck of stinky, filthy garbage and guiding Love backward before he dumped the day’s garbage. We were done.
We headed for the lot.
Love pushed the truck along at about 50 miles an hour. It was agreed they would let me off within a half mile of my house to save me the two-mile walking distance. The time came for me to get off, but Love didn’t stop the truck. He slowed some, but we were still moving along at a pretty good clip.
“Come on College Boy, jump,” Ricky called out. It was my last challenge of the day. Would I jump from the rolling truck like they did, the pros? Love smiled in his side mirror. “Let’s go college boy,” they urged. “We want to get home.” Love slowed a little more for me. I hit the ground running, gliding into a stride like I had been a garbage man all my life.
“See you tomorrow,” I yelled as the truck roared off to the lot. “Thank you.”