Coca-Cola Santa Claus
In the early 1950s; on the South Side of Chicago about midway between where Al Capone ran his criminal empire from the Lexington Hotel in the 1920s, and the Manhattan Project scientists secretly created the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago in 1942; in the dead of winter that froze the marrow in my little 8-year old bones; my parents owned a small neighborhood, Ma-and-Pa, basement grocery store.
When you’re eight years old, you can’t get very far on foot. But how far and safely I could walk, determined the boundaries of my childhood world. Walking west from the store, I would come to State Street, Chicago’s north-south meridian. Amble a half block south of there and I’d pass a meat packing factory; and a half block north, a potato chip packing factory. The two factories were the best paying businesses in the neighborhood, and often their employees would take their lunch break at our grocery store where they could buy a pop, crackers, and fresh deli meat. Two of my aunts worked at the meat packers, alongside their brother, my father, until he got into an argument with a manager, and the basement store started by my mother became the job where my father would work for the rest of his life.
There were some places I knew about, but couldn’t go. Some were too far away; some felt unsafe; and some were…well, this was Chicago, the City of Neighborhoods: “Yonder there be dragons.” But if I could have walked farther west, across the sharp gravel covering my elementary school’s playground, past a few more streets, through some back yards of homes where tight-knit, insular neighborhoods of immigrants still lived, and through an underpass beneath a tangle of heavily traveled railroad tracks, I would have come to the Union Stock Yards.
Between 1865 and 1900, the railroad brought about 400 million animals to the Stock Yards be slaughtered. But just as cheap railroad transportation enriched the Stock Yards in the past; the newer, more economical highway and refrigerated truck system would force even the mighty Swift and Armour meat companies to admit defeat and move out of the Yards by the late 1950s.
But now, in the early 1950s, it was still possible to occasionally see a lone cowboy on horseback, riding low and hard and whirling a lariat high over his head, push his horse around the corner of the side street north of the elementary school, then gallop south through traffic down State Street in pursuit of a solitary steer that had jumped its corral in the Stock Yard and was making a break for it.
The weather in Chicago during spring was crisp and fresh; in summer, rainswept and tropical; during autumn, ablaze with color; but during winter, it was just downright brutal. If you look at a map of the world, there doesn’t seem to be a single mountain, hill, or forest to block the freezing wind from blowing down from the North Pole, across Lake Michigan, and through the streets of the city. In Chicago, the nickname for the winter wind is “the Hawk,” because those frigid arctic blasts felt like razor-sharp beaks and talons cutting your cheeks and fingertips, no matter how heavily you bundled up. Our small, low-ceilinged basement store always felt narrow and claustrophobic, but in winter, it somehow felt more so.
When the Hawk swooped down over the warm waters of Lake Michigan, the lake effect would dump not just several inches of snow over the city, but several feet. At our store, customers would tromp down the five concrete steps leading from the outer airlock door to the inner door of the grocery, while their old-fashioned rubber galoshes jingled like snowbells with each step of their unfastened metal snap-buckles. A roofed, glass-walled stairway provided shelter for customers when they entered the outer door. Along either side of the stairway, usually empty glass display shelves sparkled with softly buzzing, green and red neon signs advertising 7-Up and Coca-Cola.
Jingling customers tromping down the concrete stairs would deposit fresh snow from the frosty white streets all the way down to the dark green linoleum floors inside. In the heat of the basement, the snow would melt and make the floors slippery with muddy footprints. We could never mop the floors fast enough to keep it dry, so we paved a path of day-old Chicago Daily News newspapers from the front door to the counter in back. More than anything else, I remember how the air grew thick from the humidity of melting snow, and cloying from the smell of old, soggy newspapers.
When a customer walked into the store, they could turn right and follow the racetrack counterclockwise past the open top refrigerator full of loose bottles of pop; the bulk vegetables bins of potatoes, onions, and carrots; the shelves on the north wall and center island full of canned and bottled goods; the dairy refrigerator at the back full of milk, eggs, and butter; and a double-column magazine rack holding Ebony and Jet magazines, and my personally curated selection of the very best comic books of the day.
Next, the employee-only aisle led to the back where a radio broadcast Cubs and White Sox games in the summer, and a huge cast iron furnace heated the entire building during the winter. Continuing counterclockwise, another refrigerator was full of deli and fresh meat that we would cut to order; a fourth refrigerator on the left side of the racetrack was filled with ice cream and popsicles, a sure hit with kids during the summer; the checkout counter was on the right where we also served cigarettes, hair combs, lipstick, cookies, hand-packed ice cream from commercial 3-gallon containers, and individual pieces of assorted penny candy that drove me crazy when some grinning kid walked in the front door with a dollar bill clutched in their hand. At the end of the aisle was a newspaper stand stacked with the Chicago Tribune, The Sun-Times, The Daily News, and the Chicago Defender. And finally, before returning to the front door, there was a shelf with loaves of Wonder Bread and sundry on the upper tiers, and 6-packs of Pepsi Cola, Royal Crown, 7-Up, and Coca-Cola on the lower level.
At Christmas time, the radio in back might be playing holiday carols, and customers buying old-fashioned, creamy egg nog from the dairy refrigerator would trudge around the aisles wearing heavy coats and scarves and jingle-jingle-jangling galoshes, and feel the roaring furnace in back keeping us warm.
When I was very young, Coca-Cola distributed their fizzy, sweet, caramel-colored soft drink in pale-green, narrow-necked, glass bottles more shapely than Lena Horne or Marilyn Monroe. The bottles were packed in clusters of six in red-and-white striped cardboard carrying cases; the cases were shipped in groups of four in squat wooden crates; and if you returned your empty bottles, you could get your deposit back.
At Christmas time, Coca-Cola inserted into each cardboard carrying case an illustrated copy of the poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” in which a charming, smiling, pot-bellied Currier & Ives image of Old Saint Nick stands by a roaring fireplace eating cookies and drinking Coca-Cola instead of milk.
In America, even a small child knows commercialism permeates daily life, and that Coca-Cola had co-opted some old, traditional image to sell its product. Still, I didn’t mind. “The Night Before Christmas” is a beautiful poem, and the mystery of a smiling, ruddy-faced Santa Claus—even in a black ghetto of Chicago, even peddling fizzy, caramel-colored sugar water—was an image a child of eight could make peace with, and enjoy the magic.
So, while the arctic winds of the Hawk screeched down the broad streets of Chicago and turned the air itself into icicles; in a neighborhood basement grocery store of a type they don’t make anymore; in an atmosphere that was almost too thick and humid to breathe; my 8-year old self read the poem, stared at the jovial, commercial, candy-cane-colored Spirit of the Holidays…and smiled in awe.
— The End —
Afterword for “Santa…”
It occurs to me, when I consider monsters in a box in light of the spirit of the holidays (for whichever holidays you celebrate), that perhaps we should think of the “box” as a dusty, cardboard box of holiday decorations sitting on a shelf in our garage or basement; and think of the “monsters” inside the cardboard box as ornaments—twinkling, tinkling, promises of what might be—waiting, if wishes do come true, to be hung by the chimney with care.
Anyway, it’s a thought.
Thanks to those who encouraged me to revisit “that old story about childhood Christmas memories that they liked so much.” And to the rest of you, Happy Holidays!