‘It’s Church Lady,’ Joe explained, on a Christmas Eve 50 years ago

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Joe Doyle, the author’s friend and fellow bagger at Jewel, in about 1985. / Photo provided by David McGrath

No snow on the ground and none in the forecast, so we were not going to have a white Christmas in 1967.

When the phone rang, more bad news. Marie, the service manager at Jewel, called to say Evergreen Park Plaza was mobbed with Christmas Eve shoppers, and would I please come in to work.

I had other plans, but she sounded desperate. So I changed into a white shirt and red tie, put on my hood coat, and took the shortcut across the Rockwell Avenue tracks at 96th Street to the mall.

OPINION

Marie’s smile, and the way she grasped my shoulders when I arrived, made me embarrassed for arriving grumpy. Then she asked that I work outside at the grocery pick-up station with Joe Doyle.

“You can keep an eye on each other,” Marie winked.

Like me, Joe was 17. He lived five houses down the block and I had known him since first grade. My parents, however, worried that he was a “bad influence,” periodically in trouble at school.

He smoked cigarettes and sometimes weed, when the latter was still mysterious and taboo. And he had a fake Army driver’s license saying he was 21, which let him get carry-outs of Old Style at Gee Jay’s Liquors on 79th Street.

Joe gave nicknames to everyone we knew. I was Boomie (don’t ask), John Starshak was “Grosshak,” and Joe’s kid brother John was “Ruff” after the dog on Dennis the Menace.

One time back in grammar school, when one of the Greenens called me “Four Eyes” in front of everyone on the playground, Joe answered back that my thick glasses were for seeing “who’s the real jackass.”

Ever since, Joe Doyle was my best friend.

“Grab an apron, Boomie,” he said. “I’m making out like a bandit.”

The groceries people purchased at our Jewel inside the mall were bagged and sent on an underground conveyor belt to the pick-up station in the middle of the parking lot, so shoppers could drive up where we would load their trunk. We were not supposed to accept tips. But on Christmas Eve, you could “make out like a bandit.”

Already Joe had a scheme, which he explained to me while gesturing to the pile of coins on the table inside the door. Instead of dividing the tips in half, he said, we could use it all to buy one of those fancy $30 FM radios for his Ford. FM was the new rage for stereo music, and I was always hitching rides with him anyway. Zeke Michau, his friend and gearhead from the next block, Joe told me, would connect the speakers “for a couple of cold ones.”

Meanwhile, as Marie warned, the parking lot was jammed, and a steady procession of groceries rode the conveyor into the pickup station: Brown bags bulging with cookies and cakes, five-pound sugar sacks, whole hams, turkeys, and canned cranberries and pumpkin.

We worked fast, so that there were seldom more than three cars waiting in line. And we had a system, whereby Joe would go up to the passenger window to get their claim ticket and shout the number to me.

He was smooth at small talk, telling fathers what was sharp about their cars, and asking kids what “Santy Claus” was bringing. It was embarrassing, and very “Eddie Haskell”; but I couldn’t argue with our growing mountain of cash.

There was one car door he slammed pretty hard: “It figures someone drives a Caddy doesn’t give squat,” he said.

Later, Joe knelt outside the passenger window of Mrs. Matthews’ Chevy, talking so long that five cars were waiting. Finally, he rose and flashed a grin, while waving a dollar bill for me to see.

By 5:45 p.m., it was already dark, and at 6 the store would close. My hands were red and raw.

A white GMC van belching black smoke pulled to the curb. After talking with the driver, Joe came inside and started shoveling our hard-earned cash into one of their grocery bags.

“What the hell?” I said.

“It’s Church Lady. ”

He looked me in the eye, to see the information sink in. “Church Lady” was the namehe gave to the woman whoalways wore a baggy moo moo, handed out religious pamphlets, and had a dozen adopted kids with her husband. They came to the store every two weeks to buy up the dented cans and damaged packages for half price. Even the dented dog food, though we were pretty sure they had no dogs.

Joe piled several cans of soup and crushed Quaker Oats on top, and we loaded everything else into their car.

“God bless,” she said and handed Joe a holy card.

“Merry Christmas,” Joe called, as she pulled away.

He held the holy card high above his head, flashing that grin: “It’s a start, Boomie,” he said. “Thirty bucks more, and we’ll be riding in style.”

We had to keep quiet about the tips and the gift. And it was pretty much forgotten after we left Jewel, moved on with our lives, and even after Joe died in 2012.

But on the 50th anniversary of the Christmas of ‘67, it’s a secret worth knowing, especially for Joe’s grandchildren, in the season when we cherish and celebrate the good that resides in every human being.

The noble heart in men and women like my friend, which only those who love them are permitted to see.

David McGrath is Emeritus English professor, College of DuPage, and author of THE TERRITORY.

mcgrathd@dupage.edu

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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