Technically Christmas

Illustration by Levi Hastings

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It was November or December. I don’t remember which; I just remember that I was about nine years old and it was cold outside. My older sister decided to go for a walk around our sprawling suburban apartment complex with one of her cool 11-year-old friends—her specific purpose being to get away from me, the annoying younger brother.

Ijeoma started sneaking out the door, I started bawling over being left out, my mom was sick of listening to both of us and ordered my sister to let me tag along. It didn’t feel like a victory. We wandered aimlessly, my sister and her friend walking several feet in front of me, whispering and giggling, looking behind them every few minutes to remind themselves of the little brown albatross shuffling in their footsteps. Albatrosses never take a hint.

The complex was named something vague and corporate, like Garden Court, or Village Pines, or Andante—I can’t remember, because every couple of years there’d be a shooting and they’d change the name for PR purposes. It was a sea of nondescript, identical buildings separated by winding driveways and shabby, weed-choked greenspace. I remember all the buildings being tan, but some of them might have been a dull blue-gray. (Truly the tan of blues.)

You had to be careful where you stepped—the land upon which this cookie-cutter apartment complex had been scotch-taped together was not prime property. It might have been reclaimed marshland. Maybe it had previously been a garbage dump; maybe it still was. If I had to guess based on vibe alone, I’d say that it had previously been a graveyard. The terrain was treacherous and lacked ambience. Christmas was approaching on the calendar, but in the air there was nothing but dingy sameness.

We hopped through the grass like it was a minefield until we came to a ground-level unit with a giant sliding glass door. It looked identical to all of the hundreds of other ground-level apartments in the complex except that the blinds were open, revealing a sparely furnished living and dining room: white carpet, a love seat, a table and a chair. At the table sat a man, and in the man’s hands was a shotgun. He held the gun pointed at the ceiling while he stared blankly into the kitchen. (We knew it was the kitchen—the floor plans were all the same.) He was motionless, and so were we, standing in front of the sliding glass door, staring at him staring into the kitchen.

Even though I was only nine, my first thought was that this man was clearly in the military. My mom had been dating a married army sergeant and the haircut and posture were instantly familiar. We knew we had been standing there too long, but we were frozen. Suddenly, the man turned his head in our direction. The second our eyes met, he cocked the shotgun and pointed it right at us.

Time began again, the ice in my joints instantly shook loose and we took off running. I was going so fast that it seemed like I was floating above the muddy earth—at least until we got about 200 yards away and my right foot went calf-deep into a sinkhole. I felt the twist but I had no time to feel the pain. I kept going. We wouldn’t feel safe until we were home.

We ran through the door screaming and crying so hard that it felt like a cat was clawing the inside of my throat. It didn’t take many words before my mom sprung into action. By the time Ijeoma said, “…MAN…HHH HHH….GUN…HHH HHH…” mom had the phone in her hand. (Luckily, you can still call 911 even if your phone service is shut off.) It took the officer what seemed like hours to get there, which was weird because there was always at least one police car driving through our complex at two miles per hour. Ijeoma walked my mom and the cop to the unit where the incident took place. I stayed home; my ankle was wrecked; by the next morning my foot wouldn’t fit in my shoe. There was no one home when they got to the gunman’s apartment. The officer said to my mom. “I’ll check back later. Happy Holidays.” That was the last we heard.

I hated living there so much.

Everyone I knew in those apartments was on welfare, including us. We moved there when we were accepted into the Section 8 federal housing subsidy program after years on the wait list. The apartments were advertised as “luxury apartment homes” in a “quiet suburban neighborhood” but really they were a racket: Fill up as many units as possible, collect the government checks, and do the absolute minimum upkeep so that the government inspectors don’t shut you down. Paint over the mold, mop up the mud seeping up from the floor. There’s a myth that every person on welfare is a scammer, but the slumlords who run apartment complexes like the one we lived in are the real welfare queens. My mom was trying her best.

It’s not like we weren’t grateful to be there. It wasn’t the worst place we had lived, and with the Section 8 vouchers we were no longer in constant fear of eviction. (Being poor in America is not like being poor in a lot of other places, and I feel extremely lucky to have been born here. Those social programs, problem-riddled as they were, kept a roof over our heads and food in our mouths.) But there’s something about knowing the people who own your home couldn’t care less about you. Combined with the concentrated poverty and the drug abuse and violence that comes along with it, this existence felt dreary and hopeless. When I look back on those years, I don’t see them in color.

Christmas, in particular, was somewhere else—far enough away to seem unreachable but close enough to remind you of what you didn’t have. In general, the 25th of any month was not a great time for this “community,” where everyone got paid once a month, on the 1st. A few people would put up Christmas lights around the holidays, transforming their building from garbage to illuminated garbage, highlighting the slanted balcony railings, the bulbs reflecting in the sheen of the swampy grass. But I never felt holiday cheer in that place. At least not in December.

Christmas was an exercise in recalibrating expectations. We always got something—if there’s one thing you can say about my mom, she knows how to create fun out of nothing. Some years it was silly things from the dollar store, sometimes a bundle from the Salvation Army, some years my grandparents would come through with something luxurious like a Walkman. There’d be gift drives at school, where kids were supposed to bring in toys for charity. When I’d ask my mom if we could donate, she’d always say, “I’m not going to spend money on a toy just so they can give it back to us.” It was technically Christmas. But not, you know, Christmas-Christmas.

There was one magical day in that hive, though. One day that lit up the faces of everyone in the complex with anticipation and delight. It came every year, but not on the same date, and not always in the same month. It could be any time in February or March. It would come by surprise, by post, and every afternoon people would scurry in anticipation to the hutch of mailboxes located in the center of the complex. There were hundreds of mailboxes stacked on top of each other in rows of about 10, each box identical to the next. When you looked at them, you came to terms with the fact that you lived just like your mail.

But on those winter days, there could be something special in there—the spirit of the holidays behind that tiny steel door, one turn of a key away. Those who grew up like me know exactly what I’m referring to, the day that is different from all the other days. I’m talking about the day your income tax return arrives. Or, as I like to call it, Poor People Christmas.

During this season, every morning, my mom, my sister and I would wake up and talk about what we were going to do if today turned out to be the day. There were always the initial priorities: pay the electric bill and get the lights back on, pay the shady local mechanic to get your car running again (for just a little bit longer), get new shoes (because no matter how broke you are, children’s feet continue to grow).

The first major group decision was always a restaurant. We never went to restaurants; we never had other people make food for us. But on this night we could go anywhere we wanted. Would it be China Passage, with its giant replica of a junk ship that took up the bulk of the dining room? (If you were lucky, you’d get seated at a table on the ship’s deck—the pinnacle of class.) Or would it be Cucina Cucina, possibly the fanciest restaurant we had ever been to? (Their olive oil was EXTRA virgin.)

Regardless of where we went, every year I looked around the restaurant and wondered if this was the most special day of the year for anyone else. How come our table seemed so much happier to be there? Why were other people not more amazed by focaccia? I knew most other diners didn’t live like us. I didn’t know what their lives were like, but I knew that, to them, this was no big deal.

That was the most beautiful part. For one day, we got to pretend that this was just our life, this is just what we do—we go to a restaurant, maybe we go to a movie afterwards, maybe we fill up the tank and just drive around. Maybe things could be different, maybe the world sold to us as “normal” was really out there, waiting, within our grasp.

That’s what holidays are for—to make you feel like you’re a part of something larger: a family, a culture, a nation, a local Italian chain restaurant. That’s Christmas.