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The Christmas gifts I wanted to give

I walked along the train tracks where they crossed 96th Place and South Washtenaw near my home. It was mid December, when darkness comes early, and the air smells like snow. But I was not feeling the Christmas spirit.

OPINION

In the holiday hiring rush, I had just gotten my first job as a porter at Montgomery Wards in the Evergreen Park Plaza. It should have meant the chance to earn more than my weekly allowance, and to finally buy decent gifts for loved ones.

But as a rookie, I was only scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday, from after school till 9 p.m., for $1.25 an hour,  the minimum wage in 1966.

I was 16, so the seasons of Santa and Charlie Brown were well behind me. Yet how how could I expect to act like an adult, a giver rather than a taker, when I had to divvy up my meager cash for 25 presents?

Porter was a fancy term for janitor, I guess. Old Joe Horton did the actual dirty work, mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms. So I was more like a janitor’s helper, pushing a garbage bin on wheels up and down the aisles to collect trash and cardboard boxes from the employees who stocked the shelves and sold the clothes, toys, and shoes.

When the bin was full, I’d wheel it back into the cave-like boiler room where I’d shovel the boxes into the electric bailer.

Sometimes when Joe was absent with a sore throat from all the Pall Malls he smoked during coffee breaks, it was up to me to pick up the phone whenever there were four consecutive gongs over the P.A., to learn if there was an aisle clean-up, or, heaven forbid, if a toilet overflowed.

Mostly, it wasn’t so bad. The sales people did not talk to the porters, and nobody bothered us in the dark of the boiler room.

But this year I’d I have to once again chip in on the kids’ fund. My siblings maintained a Christmas fund of which my elder sister Rosie was in charge. She worked a union job making good money. So she’d collect our modest contributions and then include us on the nice gifts which she bought. “From the McGrath Gang,” she’d write on the cards.

So here I was in high school, almost six feet tall, 170 pounds, with a regulation Montgomery Wards name tag. And shortly I’d be receiving gifts like a wristwatch and Old Spice and even a cigarette lighter from Grandma Chico, pretty Aunt Mary Ann, or Uncle Vic.

Yet when they opened their gifts — a bottle of fine wine or a set of scented candles — they would call out, “Thanks, McGrath Gang!” all the while knowing it was mainly Rosie, and that I was still just one of the brats.

Little did I know when I finally veered off the tracks and headed to work, that everything was about to change.

While flattening some larger boxes for the bailer that night, I found one that was not empty. The top had been slit open, and it contained exactly one dozen pairs of women’s Isotoner gloves in various colors.

Horton often bragged about finding discarded items that had water damage or were broken, but which otherwise he could wear or sell.

But nothing seemed wrong with these gloves, all neatly wrapped in clear plastic, each encased in a slim, glossy white gift box. I could give a pair to each of the females on my list, thereby doubling the amount I could spend on the men. Everyone would finally get something from me that they deserve. A real present just from David, for a change.

I stashed the gloves in my locker before going home.

It would be two days before I’d return to Wards, and I don’t think I slept more than one hour total. I couldn’t decide if keeping the gloves were the same as stealing. After all, somebody in authority threw them out.

Surely, tossing them may have been a mistake. Then again, didn’t somebody open the box and look inside?

Maybe the sizing was off. A manufacturing defect. Or else it was discontinued merchandise. That happens.

Yet what if my mother, for example, wanted to return her gloves? Do I tell her I don’t have the receipt? Will she just study my face, in that way she does, and know I’m lying? Or what if she simply returns them on her own, and it’s already been reported that they went missing?

Thoughts kept colliding in my head.

I visualized Aunt Mary Ann opening a pair of red leather Isotoners, cooing with delight, exclaiming how she must have really rated highly on David’s Christmas list.

And then I tried to imagine if the joy bestowed by the beautiful gloves would feel poisoned by an act that was wrong.

On Thursday, I was exhausted. And I was sick of Christmas. Sick of the make-believe I fell for as a kid. Sick of my plan to cheat the company and fool my relatives, now that I was grown.

The manager in Women’s Clothing did not even look at me.

“Yes, these must be ours.”

I watched her set the case of gloves behind the counter, and then I wheeled the trash wagon back to the boiler room.

The following Friday, I gave Rosie my money for the Christmas fund.

“What’s wrong, David?” she said.

I explained how I’d hoped to buy presents on my own, and how now I felt like a cheapskate.

“Don’t,” she said. “I’m only spending a portion of my money. You just gave everything you had.”

I raised my eyes to behold my big sister.

And I thought how Christmas may not be such a sham — not some phony idea of what we all are. That it’s more like a dream of what we can be.

David McGrath is Emeritus English Professor, College of DuPage, and author of THE TERRITORY. mcgrathd@dupage.edu