I can still hear the laughter. I can see all of my old pals, their long hair brushing against their shoulders. The house is a total mess and there’s about $500 worth of food on a big, dusty table. The fireplace is burning bright. And in my mind’s eye, my friends and I are young, happy, some of us stoned, all of us sure that the future is going to be some kind of wonderful.
This is John’s house, a place I went to on Christmas Eve for 35 straight years. Another family lives there now. A friend from those days is dead. And only the memories remain.
The tradition began in the early '70s. I started hanging out in White Plains, New York, because Billy had lived there. Billy and I went to prep school together and became fast friends. Through Billy, I met Woody the poet, Kenny the guitar player and John. John was the sort of guy who read a 1,000-page biography of Huey Long in less than a week at 14. He had Southern roots, long hair, a brother and sister, and his parents were (whisper whisper) divorced. Although his house looked pleasant enough from the outside, it was clearly unlike any of the other homes in the neighborhood.
John’s mom Babette was depressed and eccentric — probably both. She was from Georgia, was Jewish and loved Christmas more than anything else in the world. So each year, Billy, Woody, Kenny, myself and a few other guys — and eventually girls, like our science genius pal, Ellen — showed up on Babette’s doorstep bearing gifts on Christmas Eve.
We also carried antihistamines and handkerchiefs because the place hadn’t been dusted in years. Except for the couch, there wasn’t a clean spot in the house. Babette “collected” (or more precisely, didn’t get rid of) newspapers. She had baskets of laundry overflowing with dirty clothes covering the kitchen. Bathroom doors were off their hinges and the window sills were black with soot.
And we didn’t care one bit.
Because smack in the middle of this holy mess was the most symmetrical, perfectly decorated Christmas tree you’ve ever seen — sitting in front of a roaring fire. It was a winter oasis.
We were young. We had each other. We were on Christmas vacation. We went outside around 9 to smoke a joint and at 9:15, we ate. Life was perfect. And the food was even better.
John was one of those precocious kids who knew about things like caviar and smoked whitefish when he was a child. The table at his house held delicacies that you’d typically find at a fancy office party, and there was endless eggnog strong enough to knock out Dean Martin. We ate like only the stoned can eat. And although we didn’t stop stuffing our faces for two hours, there was still enough food left over to feed a small army.
Ellen, a trim swimmer, was probably the only one of us who held back. Over the years, she took turns having a crush on each one of us, and never wanted to seem too tomboyish or inelegant.
After pigging out, we would always exchange presents, which, when we first begun this practice, was not the sort of thing 14- and 15-year-old boys did. We prided ourselves on not being like those other macho jerks we knew at school. Invariably, these presents were either record albums (remember them?) or books (heaven forbid)! Getting a paperback copy of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or “Mother Night” was a glorious thing. We were bound together by our love of music and culture and we didn’t care who knew it. By midnight — high, happy and full — we stared quietly into the fire like it was the greatest movie we had ever seen.
Everything passes, but wonderful things seem to pass much too quickly. First came college, then my friends got married. Our parents grew old. In other words, life happened. I still remember taking a walk with John and his pregnant wife about 15 years ago after the party had wound down. He told me that his mom was going to try and get the house fixed up so she could sell it, and this was probably going to be our last Christmas Eve there together.
It was. A few years later, Ellen, who was now married with two kids, died suddenly.
These days when the holidays approach, I don’t get excited as I used to. On the contrary, I pray just to get through them. But all the guys are still my pals and we communicate (usually by email) often. In fact, I recently heard from John, who now lives in his father’s old apartment in Manhattan. He’s been thinking that maybe next year, he’ll start the Christmas Eve tradition again.