All five of us women were sopranos in our early thirties; Dan, the sole male in our group, was twenty-something and sang baritone. He was also my room-mate and guitar accompanist. Dan, Maris, and Margie were Jewish; so they didn’t know the words to the songs by heart. They needed carol books while Linda, Catherine, and I, Episcopalians, only occasionally glanced at the lyrics of lesser-known verses.
Dan, having been a hiker for many years, was dressed adequately, if not elegantly. His nose and lips, peeping out above many rolls of scarf, were cherry red, “Wait, my glasses are steamed up again,” he complained before each carol.
Maris, an actor and director, slim as a rail, had wild curling black hair, which framed her face and fit well with her shawls and layered skirts. Margie was petite with reddish-brown curls and a theatrically-trained voice. She had been in the original cast of “Jaques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris” and had toured across America performing in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Margie and Maris dressed with less bulk and more flair, as befitted their being in theatre. Catherine, also an actor, wore a stylish warm coat and hat with matching gloves. She always dressed well, despite being in the same financial situation as the rest of us: scraping by on an artists’ salary in NYC.
No one could have used the word “elegant” to describe my caroling get-up. Having suffered from the cold in previous years, I dressed as best I could, with layers of cotton and wool garments, three pairs of socks, mittens over my gloves, a hat and a thick scarf which covered most of my face with the exception of my perpetually running nose.
Linda, who made her living as a Colonial balladeer working at Federal Hall on the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, (and who would later provide us with a sparkling holiday feast,) was our visual centerpiece. Flushed with excitement, she stood wrapped in a scarlet Shaker cape, her long brown hair cascading out of the cape’s hood, one hand gripping the handle of a pierced tin 18th century-style lantern. Linda was from a singing Wisconsin family and knew more verses to more songs than anyone. She was tall, utterly untroubled by the cold, singing with all her heart to passersby.
“I’m f-f-freezing,” I complained, blowing my nose on a damp tissue. By December, the granite slab upon which Manhattan squats begins to emanate an all-pervading chill, freezing the feet and legs of anyone foolish enough to stand still in the streets. Icy blasts from the Hudson and East Rivers race across the island like hungry wolves. Our first choice of caroling locations had not panned out; too cold and windy for us. Cabs rushed past; people bent against the wind hurried by.
In past years, we usually walked down Broadway from Linda’s apartment on 98th Street, stopping at any inviting stoop or store that had a sheltered doorway. Here we would pause, offering a few carols to evening shoppers, while growing colder by the minute. This night, we turned east, walking across 79th Street to Amsterdam Avenue. We looked longingly at the windows of the town houses on the street with their inviting, well-appointed warmly-lit interiors.
Amsterdam Avenue was lined with upscale cafes and boutiques, jewelry salons, trendy florists and pricy shoe stores with French sounding names. Their showroom lights illuminated the sidewalk making it look as though it were part of a theatrical set. We stopped outside of the Laura Ashley store on the corner of 79th and Amsterdam where there seemed to be a large number of shoppers. Standing in a little arc we sang lustily, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come! Let heaven receive her King…” Pedestrians rushing to get out of the cold paused for a verse of two and left smiling. A few tried to tip us. One of New York’s famous checkered yellow cabs (the boxy old kind) pulled over to the curb.
The driver rolled down the window, and roared, “Merry Christmas!” before screeching his way back into the river of headlights and disappearing into the traffic. One couple loaded with holiday purchases put down their bundles and sang several carols with us. The candles in the lanterns that Linda and I were holding did little to illuminate our lyrics; the store lights took care of that. The lanterns were there mostly for the show, although I tried to warm my numb fingers by holding my mittens so close to the pierced tin top that I smelt the wool beginning to singe and had to give up that idea.
After an hour or so of singing without walking, our hearts were warm but our feet were frozen so we caroled our way back to Broadway and the 72nd street subway station. In all, we had walked several miles and were cold, tired and hungry, “I can almost taste the hot mulled wine and home-made treats at Linda’s house,” I thought, longingly. I knew she had been cooking and decorating her apartment for weeks until it looked and smelled like Christmas in “Merry Old England.” I thought of how after reciting holiday stories and poems, exchanging gifts and toasts and stuffing our faces, we would sing, “Silent Night” while lighting the candles in the Victorian tin holders clipped to the tips of the branches of Linda’s fragrant fir tree.
The acrid odor of the subway interrupted my fantasies as we trooped downstairs to the dimly-lit subway platform. It was 8:30pm and most of the crowds were gone. Even at the best of times, New York City subway stations could have a sobering affect upon a person. They exuded all the cheerfulness of catacombs with their cave-like echoes and smells. Chewing gum, spit, urine and cigarette butts littered the cement floors and grimy (once brilliant, now grey-brown with dirt) mosaic tiled walls and columns.
This was, after all, the mid 80’s, a time of great struggle in many of America’s cities. Graffiti covered New York City’s subway cars; gang-related crime was in the news. I, myself, had been mugged; a friend of mine had been pushed onto the tracks (when, fortunately, no train was coming.) Racial strife was at a peak.
Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and everyone in-between who, above ground, passed each other without a second thought, gravitated towards groups of their own kind on the subway platform, especially at night. The most hilarious of travelers would quiet down and glance furtively at fellow would-be passengers. No barriers separated the dark granite platform from the five-or-so foot drop to the rails. Should you fall down there, you might land on top of a rat and, as every school-age New Yorker would tell you, “If you fall on the third rail…zap! You’re electrocuted! Fried! Dead meat!” Personally, I liked knowing who was standing behind me. Everyone sensed immediately that he or she was in a dangerous place in the presence of potentially violent people…and it sobered one up.
We carolers were not ready to settle down, however. To the astonished amusement of the others standing on our own platform and those of the three other tracks in this large station, we burst into a spirited rendition of “Jingle Bells.” Just as we were finishing up the verse, drawing out “in a one…horse… o…pen… sleigh!” in a big finale, I noticed a well-dressed, tall black man leave his family where they stood on the platform and turn our way.
“Uh-oh,” I said under my breath. Since New Yorkers usually avoided making eye contact in subway stations and this fellow was baring down upon us with a grim and purposeful stare, we feared we were about to be lectured about being a public nuisance.
Just feet away from us, he threw back his head and belted out, “Daaa..shing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh, o’er the fields we go….” All six of us carolers joined in singing, glad to have acquired a bass. Miraculously, people on the other platforms began singing along; harmonizing!
“Screeeeeetch!” Our train came out of the tunnel, slowing to a stop. The doors jerked opened after several tries; we hurried in before they could shut on us, and sat across from each other on the ugly orange molded vinyl seats that lined both sides of the subway car. Even then, rocking to the rhythm of the rails, we sang, sotto voce, “Oh jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…” Suddenly our car’s lights went out and we were plunged into total darkness. This was not at all uncommon; just one of the many unaccounted-for occurrences over which subway riders had no control. Linda and I both struck matches and lit our lanterns.
“Oh what fun it is to ride,” we sang, our faces softly illuminated in the candlelight. A transit policeman entered our car at the far end, the doors slamming shut behind him. The train sped ever-faster, lurching from side to side on the noisy rails. The occasional light bulbs we were shooting past in the tunnel shone through the subway’s filthy windows in jerky intervals, making the cop appear to move in jerks, like a character in a silent film. Never pausing on his way down our aisle, he sized up the situation as he strode down the aisle in-between Linda and me and our lanterns.
“In a one… horse… o…pen…,” we carolers sang in harmony. With the slightest trace of a smile as he passed us, the officer reached the door at the other end of the car, yanked it open and just before exiting announced, “No candles” over the train’s din.
” Sleigh…,” we ended very quietly, simultaneously blowing out our lights. Exiting at 96th street, we went through the turn-style and climbed the stairs to Broadway, walking the rest of the way to Linda’s apartment and our feast in companionable silence.