I moved the TV set onto the floor and eased the crooked mini spruce into the central section of the wire milk crate, holding the tree in place. Stepping back a bit, well, as far back as I could step in my compact cloister, I studied it sadly. Of course I had no lights or ornaments and I certainly wasn’t about to go back downstairs to look for any, especially since I was living like Swiss Family Robinson minus the family. I gathered up the two dozen or so Christmas cards I had received and began placing them into the tree, artfully displaying them as best I could. This was my first tree on my own and with it I was celebrating so much more than the holiday. I had never ever spent so much time totally alone in the world, nearly ten days, and had accomplished that feat in the busiest, most crowded place I knew of on this planet. It was awesomely frightening, yet I really wasn’t afraid. I would have given anything to have someone next to me in this shitty apartment to pass Christmas Eve with. I would wake up tomorrow morning, Christmas morning, and be okay.
Feeling much healthier, I woke up rested. I knew Santa would not have delivered any gifts, even though there was a tree to leave them under, and now in the little bit of daylight that the small window allowed into the room, the hopeless-looking tree was laughable. At 12:30 p.m. I had to be at my phone booth to call the family back home. They would all of them be at my Aunt Fran’s house, nearly twenty familiar faces, beginning to gather around a long series of tables butted together in the basement for dinner. My grandfather demanded that he be at table, fork in hand and eating by one o’clock sharp or there would be hell to pay. Gramma, Auntie and Mom decked out in Christmas aprons, would still be slaving in the kitchen upstairs, filling bowls and platters and every available serving dish with wonderful traditional food that said we had all come together again for another family celebration. All but me, absent the first time in history.
Armed with a bag of quarters, I wedged myself in the glass booth and tried to make myself as comfortable as I could while I listened to the long distance ring of the phone on the other end of the wire. I cleared my throat, preparing my voice as though what was about to begin was a theatre piece, a scene in a play of my own crafting. I was a little tense, queasy in the stomach like you get just before the lights come up onstage. Auntie’s bright “N’yello, Merry Christmas” was my cue that the show had begun. “Merry Christmas”, perhaps a little too animated I shuttled back at her. “Is everybody there now?” I asked. “Everybody but you. We miss you. Where are you gonna eat your Christmas dinner?” I did not fabricate any invitations. It would have been much easier on me to have come up with a whirlwind of wonderful parties to attend, but I opted for the truth instead. I started to explain that I’d been sick, (as a prelude to why I wouldn’t be doing anything special today) to which she immediately over-reacted with something to the effect of “Oh my God NO!!!” which set in motion Gramma and Mom to begin keening and wailing in the background as pots and pans clanked “What happened…..Is he okay……What’s wrong?” What began as an uncomfortable phone call had instantly become unbearable, and there were at least a dozen more mournful relatives in line yet to deal with. “I’ll let you talk to your Mom”, Auntie said as she passed along the phone.
Once I was able to assure my mother I only had a three-day case of the flu she was relieved. She then promptly assumed a very stoic role, like she imagined Rose Kennedy would do if she were in the same situation, being strong for the family, bearing up nicely even though her middle son was not celebrating Christmas with the rest of the family as he should be. I allowed her to steal the scene from me, because it was easier than fighting long distance, as God knows we certainly were capable of doing, but I didn’t want to ruin her day or mine. And then the phone began its journey from cousins to uncles then father to brothers to nephew until it landed on Gramma who was so obviously crying, trying not to, but far too emotional and real to hide anything from me, her special grandson. She melted my heart as only Gramma could do. I think I pretty much went through the whole damn bag of quarters, hung up and blew my nose, not from my lingering flu, but from melancholy and sadness and the reality that something truly huge had just transpired.
I headed back to the apartment, not yet ready for a meal and not sure of what direction to take for the remainder of the day. As I climbed the many stairs to the top floor, I noticed a body at my door, only the legs visible from my angle of approach. If it had been nighttime I might have been scared. Even a friendly mugger at this point would be welcomed. It was Jacob, a friend of Matty’s from Ohio and only my solitary state could make the sight of him bring a smile to my face and a lilt to my final steps. He was an extremely boyish eighteen-year-old, who’d been a groupie of Alena and Matty and a few other local Youngstown “theatre stars”. I’d met him about a year before with Alena at a party and she brought him to a summer theatre show I’d done in Cleveland. He was attractive enough, but way too cutesy for my taste. He cloaked himself in naiveté and purity and in truth he was neither. He was the first teenager I had ever run across who admitted he was gay, and had been out to his parents since he was sixteen. Perhaps jealousy played a small part in my prejudice against him. Gay had in no way been a struggle for this boy. It wasn’t that I disliked him, I simply didn’t trust him. There was a definite Eve Harrington thing going on there that made me quite uncomfortable. But today was Christmas and he was my guest.
Jacob explained that he had seen Matty back home at a party on the weekend and he’d told him he could stay at the apartment while he was away. Jacob had just finished his first job as temporary Christmas help at a Youngstown retail store and had some money, so he left Christmas Eve on a late bus to the city and didn’t know how long he would stay. He ‘kind of thought maybe he might just move, but his life was up in the air’. I still wasn’t thrilled it was him, but he would be company for a few days and he knew people here, many in theatre and I was up for making any connections I could to possibly get a job. Another reason to put up with his doe-eyed innocence was that he always had, or could get ahold of, good smoke and I hadn’t been stoned since Matty left. Then Jacob accidentally dropped a bombshell that spoiled the secret – Alena was planning on surprising me by showing up for New Year’s Eve. Knowing that tidbit made me so excited I could have put up with sharing the apartment for a week with Nixon.
Alena and I had first become friends four years earlier, my freshman year at University, when we both were cast in a student directed musical. I was playing the teenage little brother and Alena my old maiden aunt. She already was quite the actress in the theatre department and I was a fan. Both of her parents were Greek-American, but Alena was not at all what you’d think of as Mediterranean looking. First thing in the morning, with sleep still on her face and a cigarette dangling from her full, pouting lips, she looked like a forty-something-year-old housefrau getting ready to take out the garbage, then carpool the kids to school in the family station wagon. But she was quintessential theatrical; each day could bring a different role for her to dress and make-up for, no matter how insignificant the event might seem. She had a scholarly look, hippie student, mad artistic genius, femme fatale, girlish coquette and dark brooding wacko. Unfortunately, the later most probably mirrored the real Alena that was cowering behind all those other faces. When she just pulled on jeans and a sweater or shirt with no make-up and hit the pavement as herself, she could be described, (as she was by another friend’s dad when she visited for a Sunday dinner at their home), as a dirtbag. Regardless, I adored her insanity and the bizarre ride it was to inhabit the same little planet where Alena lived.
One weekend I went home with her as her “date” to attend a huge Greek dance held in a magnificent old hotel ballroom in Youngstown. We stayed at her mother’s house and the night we arrived, we were up until after 3:00 a.m., as Alena, her mom and aunt taught me half a dozen traditional Greek dances. At the dance she wore a vintage forest green velvet deco dress, long evening gloves and her dyed red hair pulled back into a small knot. Her makeup was old Hollywood glamour and she was absolutely stunning. We literally did have a ball together that night, and many, many times before and after. My final year at University she did not return to school. She had some sort of life drama – some great crisis the made her so angry at the world that she was taking it out on the rest of us. I thought she would just cool off a semester and come back mid-year, but she didn’t. I finally wrote her since she stopped taking anyone’s calls, convincing her she was being an ass and eventually she came around and renewed our friendship my last year in Ohio. Now I was thrilled at the thought of bringing in the new year 1973 in NYC with this incredible character and long-time friend.
She arrived that Saturday afternoon with Matty, who decided to come back a few days early. It was great because the three of us had never been together in the same state at the same time. Her belated Christmas gift was to take me to Radio City the next afternoon to see the Christmas Show. “What till you see the fucking camel walk across the stage and take a shit!” which I believe were her words verbatim. She also insisted that the only way to see the show was from the third or fourth row, totally stoned, so that when the Rockettes danced downstage in their high kick line, it was “like a real life Busby Berkeley movie”. And she was right, it was and the fucking camel did take a dump almost center stage. She was staying close by at a friend’s apartment that everyone knew. He was stage manager for a successful off-Broadway show and a really nice man named Ron. He and his long-term partner were having a party New Year’s eve and we were all going. We also had to stop in at a party at a friend of Jacob’s, where he was now staying since Matty was back. As a young kid I learned that the way you spend New Year’s Eve, is the way you’ll spend the next year. My parents always stayed home and we’d all watch Guy Lombardo on TV and I had remained in Ohio, bored in front of my television set for far too many years. Maybe finally this year would be different.
As we got ready that night, it was fun catching up with Matty. He complained about family and friends in Ohio and I filled him in on the little I knew about people from the bar. He was concerned about me having been sick here alone, and thought I still looked too pale. He suggested I use some bronzer to give me color. He then brushed on some blush to give a little “pop” to my cheeks. He said that the parties would be dark so, “why not”. I agreed and let him make me look healthier. I must admit, studying my face in the mirror, it was nicely done and barely detectable. We left for the first party and after twenty minutes I realized Jacob’s friend was just a semi-grown up version of Jacob. No wonder they liked each other. I was glad that we left a few minutes later for Ron’s party on West 8th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
It was about 10:30 p.m. and Alena was waiting for us, already totally blitzed out of her gourd with weed and champagne. It was a great crowd. The apartment was good-sized, large for The Village but crammed with people, most of them in their 30s and 40s. It was a nice mix of gay and straight. We were enjoying ourselves, but Alena was traveling somewhere beyond stoned and approaching weird. I had seen her like this before, but in a smaller setting with fewer people and always on home turf. I asked her if she wanted to go out and get some air. It was unseasonably warm in New York that year, perfect weather for a walk. She thought that was a good idea so we headed out the door. The minute we hit the street, I saw panic strike her body, and knew in an instant this was a bad move. The sidewalk was filled with foot traffic, people heading towards Fifth Avenue and Washington Square Park where a crowd was gathering. I suggested we go back in and she seemed ready to do whatever someone else decided for her. Once inside I made signs to Matty that he should come help. He moved in and took her into the small bedroom now loaded nearly to the ceiling in coats. He motioned me to close the door which I did, leaving them alone.
I wanted to join the party in progress, but was preoccupied with Alena, nervous for her and her escalating condition. Within a half an hour, Matty came to get me, saying she seemed better, and why didn’t I stay with her a bit. She didn’t want to leave the bedroom. She kept looking blankly at me, mumbling that I had changed. It was now about fifteen minutes before 1973. I sat on the bed next to her, talking softly, doing everything I could to keep the anxiety at bay. She was more in control now, but there wasn’t a glimpse of any of her many fun selves I so enjoyed. We could feel the mania growing in the rest of the apartment, tension naturally building as we neared the countdown. Because the bed was covered in coats, we were sitting thigh to thigh with each other. As we heard them begin, we joined in 8 -7 -6…. At Happy New Year I leaned in to give her a kiss. She pulled her head back to take in my whole face in her glance, registered a painful grimace on her own and wailed “You’ve got on more make-up than I do!” and with that she leaned back and slapped me hard across the face, just like in a movie. She started up from the bed, left the room and disappeared into the party, lost in the crowd. Matty came up to me, asking what happened. I told him what just took place, not knowing what had happened at all.
Matty thought it would be a good idea for all concerned to get the hell outta’ there. We said our goodbyes to Ron and his partner and left only minutes into the New Year. We went out to the street again, and found a place to get something to eat. We both of us knew the many moods of loony Alena, but nothing like we had just experienced. Her slap came out of nowhere and I still felt its sting on my face an hour later and the loss in my heart for many months thereafter. I remember it was just after 2:00 a.m. that Matty and I made our way down Sixth Avenue back to the apartment. There was a time and temperature sign on a bank we passed that showed the temperature was over 50 degrees. We giggled, remarking that even the weather was weird this New Year. And then, from out of nowhere, a large upholstered wing chair plummeted down from the sky about eight feet ahead of us, crashing onto the sidewalk only steps away. Looking up, we saw a cluster of bodies hanging out of a window three or four floors above, grinning and waving and screaming hysterically. Howling with laughter until I feared I might wet myself, I threw myself into the shattered chair on Sixth Avenue and wondered if this New Year’s Eve was any indication of how I would be spending the rest of 1973.