Yesterday's Magazette

3 – It Happened One Christmas Eve


By Ned Burke

I never caught his name. But I had watched “Sad John” make his home over a rusty hot air vent next to the Hotel Jermyn in downtown Scranton each winter. I worked in the parking garage directly across the street. It was my first job and I worked as many hours as I could to support my young family. This particular Christmas Eve in 1965 I was trying to stay awake in the parking garage’s small heated cashier’s booth.

A heavy late night snowstorm had blanketed the downtown streets and had turned the city into a wintry white wonderland. It was almost midnight when I heard a faint tap on my window. I turned to see Sad John’s lethargic eyes staring at me. The old man’s white hair was crusted with ice and his woeful face was covered with a stubby beard. He had on an old overcoat that had seen better days. Beneath the coat was a newspaper that he apparently used for insulation against the winter weather. He looked frozen, and embarrassed.

He wasn’t like the other outcasts of society who frequented downtown Scranton back then. Never once did I, or anyone for that matter, ever see Sad John smile. I guess that’s how he got his name. He never asked anybody for help or a handout. He appeared to have an inner dignity his peers did not possess. The story around town was that he had been accused of some petty theft years before when he worked in a local bank. Others speculated booze or a faithless woman led to his downfall. Nobody really knew for sure. Few cared, and Sad John never talked about it. He just stood over that iron grate, hour after hour, and pretended to read his tattered newspaper as blasts of warm air fluttered up the legs of his baggy pants. The thin gloves on his hands had no finger coverings. So he was able to turn pages and give the illusion that he was actually reading the paper.

As I said, Sad John never asked anyone for anything. So it startled me when he knocked on the glass of my booth that Christmas Eve and asked for money for a cup of coffee. Up the street there was an all-night diner. He jerked his head in that direction. His voice was soft and polite. Only his eyes displayed his utter despair. I sensed his shame and so, without too much thought, I withdrew a bill from my wallet and handed it to him.

He looked at the money and appeared perplexed.

That’s when I realized I had handed him a twenty, nearly half my weekly wage. Except for one remaining dollar, that was all the money I’d have for another five days. I reached for my wallet to exchange the twenty for the one, but then stopped.

Instead, I said, “Get me one too, okay?” I tried to make it sound like something someone would say to a trusted friend.

Sad John nodded, and left without saying a word.

At that moment, I was certain I had seen the last of my money. I had only one dollar to my name now, and the next day was Christmas.

I tried not to think about it. I wanted to keep the holiday spirit in my heart. I told myself the booze Sad John would surely purchase with my money would keep him from freezing that bitterly cold night. But as the minutes ticked by and the silence of the lonely city settled over me, I became despondent and angry with myself.

“What a stupid thing to do!” I said, but there was not a living soul around to comfort me.

Then off in the distance, I saw a figure, head bowed, fighting to stay erect against the chilly gusts of wind and swirling snow. It was Sad John, battling his way down the middle of the snow-covered street. With his tattered overcoat flapping over his knees, he trudged forward, nearly stumbling at one point, but then found his balance and continued on until he reached my enclosed booth. Breathing heavily, and without uttering a word, he handed me the brown paper bag he had in his left hand. It contained two containers of hot coffee. He opened the stiff fingers of his right hand and gave me my change. Not a dime was missing. I thought of giving him a tip for his effort, but something in his eyes told me he would have been insulted.

We exchanged glances. I really didn’t know what to say to him. I only hoped my initial gesture warmed his heart in some small way. At the stroke of midnight, sounds of laughter and song escaped from the nearby hotel. It lasted briefly; then the city was silent once more.

I withdrew the two containers of coffee and handed one to Sad John.

“Merry Christmas,” I said to him.

The old man studied my face for a long time. Then, with tears in his eyes, he turned and went back to his position over the iron grate. From across the street, he stared back at me, his frail body shivering. Then ever-so-slowly he raised his container of coffee and finally returned my toast.

That was when I received a Christmas gift that kept me warm the rest of the night.

For the first time, Sad John smiled.


Copyright © 2007 Yesterday’s Magazette




1 Comment »

  1. Wonderful to read your heart-tugging Christmas story of Sad John. You caught and held me from the first sentence, made me feel the warmth of your protagonist.


    Comment by Nadja Bernitt — December 29, 2007 @ 8:51 am | Reply

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