The signal usually came as a rap on the wall that separated our row house from the one next to us. I suppose Mr. Joe could have just yelled (row house common walls hardly being soundproof), but a couple simple knuckle raps got the job done just fine.

“Joe’s ready,” my mom, clearing the supper dishes in the kitchen, would say to my dad, who was already putting his coat on and checking to make sure there was film in the camera.

“Yep, here we go again.” Dad said, heading for the door.

“Don’t forget to stop at Willie’s,” my mom called out, as the front door closed.

*  *  *

It was a Christmas Eve ritual. Mr. Joe, in full Santa Claus regalia, with my dad, his trusty wingman, ho-ho-ho-ing their way around the neighborhood to the delight, surprise, and occasional terror of its children.

Eyes wide, mouths open, the really little tykes would wonder at the sight of Santa coming through their door before hustling off to bed in hopes of remaining on his “nice list.” Meanwhile, the older kids got a kick out of playing along for the benefit of their younger siblings, and maybe because a part of them wanted to revisit, if only for a few moments, the magical fantasy that is the jolly fat man in the red suit. As for the parents, while they might put out cookies and milk later, they would offer Santa a considerably more adult beverage now to lighten the burden of his busiest night of the year, not to mention assuring that he would leave even merrier than he had arrived.

Then there were the kids “on the bubble”…the ones who were transitioning from true believers to defiant doubters. My cousin, Carolyn, was in this group, which is why my Uncle Wiilie had asked my mom to remind Joe and Harry to come by on this particular Christmas Eve. For years after, they would enjoy retelling the story of “Santa’s arrival” at Willie’s house on one cold December night in the mid-1950s.

Carolyn, probably between six and seven that year, and her older sister, Lynn, were standing in the living room admiring the Christmas tree that they had just helped decorate, Carolyn undoubtedly taking this as a sure sign that the Santa Claus ruse was, indeed, a ruse—especially since she had previously been under the impression that the red-suited fat guy did the tree decorating, too.

Standing with their backs to the front door, the girls suddenly heard footsteps crunching up the snowy steps, followed by a knock on the door and an extra merry ho-ho-ho. Only Carolyn could tell you what was in her head at that moment but we presume it was something along the lines of, here we go, one of the neighbors doing the old ho-ho-ho routine.

“Carolyn,” my Uncle Willie said, “see who’s at the door.”

Obediently turning to open it, she was startled to look up at none other than the big jolly fat man himself. (Mr. Joe was a very convincing Santa!) “She screamed so loud, it scared me.” Mr. Joe, aka Santa, later said. “Then she turned heel and ran up the stairs, taking like three steps at a time. I never saw anybody move that fast in my life.” No doubt fearful that she’d blown her chance at Christmas largesse by being a non-believer who stayed up past her bedtime, Carolyn was under the covers, eyes squinched shut, before Santa’s black boots crossed the home’s threshold.

While that was, undoubtedly, my cousin’s last Christmas as a believer, its memory lingers…one of many that involved our good friend and neighbor, Mr. Joe.

*  *  *

We shared a row house wall with he and Miss Cetta and their four children for almost fifteen years and remain close to the family (albeit without a shared wall) to this day. My mother recalls her first sight of the very Italian Concetta, hanging out laundry on a clothes tree in the back yard, “huge with her first child” (who would sadly pass before reaching his second birthday because of an illness). In the years to come, Cetta’s younger brother, Salvatore (Butch, to me) would occasionally “watch” me if my parents went out for the evening. Mostly, Butch would watch Gillette’s Friday Night Fights on TV, so I would too.  And then there was Cetta’s younger sister, Rosebud, who was probably the first girl (“older woman”) I ever had a crush on, though this may well be the first time I’m admitting to it.

Many years later, after I’d gone off to college, got married, had a family of my own, and lived hundreds of miles away, the phone would ring on Christmas day, Mr. Joe calling to offer his best wishes for the holiday and the New Year. Every Christmas, without fail!

Joe and Cetta, my mom and dad, and two other couples spent so much time together over the years that they dubbed themselves, Joe, Al & Harry’s Ace Club…“Ace” (Emil’s nickname) being the fourth guy. The wives probably had as much to do with the “club’s” formation as the men did, given that three of the four women attended high school together—a Catholic all-girls school. My mother, being a heathen who attended public school and was a few years older, was the odd girl out. At any rate, the four couples did tons of stuff together over the years, had regular “club meetings” at each other’s homes (the only business of which was resolving the date and location of the next “meeting”), and expanded the group three-fold for certain events each year, like their traditional Halloween and New Year’s parties.

And then there was the cruise!

Before he was taken from us (at a much too young age), Mr. Joe, pretty much single-handedly, managed to take “the Club” and its extended friends on a cruise. Of course, he didn’t pay everyone’s way; he just convinced them all they could afford to go.

You see, Mr. Joe, had a lot of jobs in his life, but none ever lasted very long and there were often substantial gaps in his employment history. Yet, when a local community group proposed a cruise to Bermuda, not one of my parents’ friends believed they could afford such extravagance. None, that is, except Mr. Joe.

“Hey, Harry, you sign up for the cruise yet?” Joe asked my dad one afternoon.

“No, Joe. Hell, we can’t afford that,” my dad responded.

“Well, Cetta and I are going,” Joe said, with the authority of a man with deep, if sparsely filled, pockets.

My dad and mom couldn’t get over it. Neither could any of their other friends. Soon, they all began commiserating. Joe doesn’t even have a job. If he can afford to go on the cruise, we must be able to afford it, too! Within the next couple weeks, almost twenty couples in their circle of friends had signed up. That May, they all sailed off to have the time of their lives.

Such was the magic of the Santa who lived next door. We should all be so fortunate to have one.

T H E  E N D

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