Leavitt: Christmas in July

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

Irv Leavitt

I have always had a certain outsider’s affection for Christmas, and I miss the days when it came twice a year.

I’m not talking about the double holiday that families comprised of Greek-Americans and non-Greeks often experience, due to a minor calendar discrepancy. The second Christmas I’m referring to is Christmas in July, as it was celebrated on the far North Side of Chicago late in the previous century.

It was the brainchild of Jimmy Morrison, a third-shift taxicab dispatcher who noted that cabdrivers like me were less interested in attending holiday parties than in driving other people to them.

“December, it’s too busy for us to have a Christmas party,” he maintained. “So we should just have one when it’s dead.”

The business was plenty dead in July. I used to say that on sunny days, people would walk past the cab stands and spit on us. Figuratively, mostly.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — the real ones — were my favorite days to work. In between tending to the Christian segments of my family, I got to be the guy who literally brought together members of other people’s clans.

If holidays are about anticipation, I saw Christmas celebrants at their happiest.

They might not feel so great about their relatives on the way back, but they usually wouldn’t let on.

Mostly, I liked carrying older folks to or from the suburbs to visit the kids. But the best Christmas Eve ever was the one when I picked up a whole family from the Philippines at the airport.

After we hit the expressway, I heard them reacting with quiet awe at the snow carpeting the embankments.

“You’ve never seen snow before, have you?” I asked. They were taken aback, thinking I was going to make fun of the rubes who were unfamiliar with winter.

I tried to tell them I was probably almost as happy to see them see snow for the first time as they were to have the experience themselves, but I’m not sure they believed me.

I pulled the car over short of their destination. “It’s going to warm up a little tonight, and this stuff is going to melt,” I said. They looked at me blankly.

“The snow’ll be gone soon. I’m sorry.

“So everybody out. I’m going to make sure you have your first snowball fight, right now, while you can.” And so I can see it, I thought to myself.

And I can still see it. Kids, parents, grandparents, all trying, mostly ineffectually, to fling snow at each other, thrilled about the stuff that annoyed almost everyone around them, closed up in their houses.

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There was never any snow for the Norshore Cab Christmas in July party. Morrison would promote the event on the Norshore Cab Assn. frequency that he broadcast on five nights a week.

But he would also tip off a commercial radio station, so that people knew they could come to the tavern at Greenleaf and Ravenswood to join their friends from the cab company. It was good publicity for the business, he said.

It was a cop bar, but Jimmy had opened up half of it for us. The cops generally lined up on one side of the racetrack-shaped bar, and we took the other. Christmas in July was the only night in which that formation was significantly disturbed.

The cops liked the party, and they tolerated the cab drivers. That was probably because of Jimmy, an ex-con who wore his history like a badge of honor.

“I did a lot of robbing,” he often growled to detractors. “But whether I used a gun or a pen, I always looked them in the eye.”

He stopped saying that in my presence after I finally told him I couldn’t see how such a rule made stealing any more ethical. But first, he schooled me. He said almost everybody has dishonest moments, so we all should draw some lines we won’t cross, because if we don’t, everything will get really out of hand.

I think the cops appreciated his kind of criminal, because most of the others seemed more unpredictable.

And some of them liked the party, too, because of where it wasn’t: their homes. Their jobs tended to drive them to drink, and the drinking tended to drive them out of the house.

Spouses sometimes came to the tavern, but many of them were cops, too. I remember a couple of times when they actually shot at each other there.

Luckily, they were impaired.

The cabdrivers’ Christmas party was supposed to take the place not of a family get-together, but of an office Christmas party.

The cops all had real holiday parties in December, just like most American workers.  Ours was different from them in more than timing.

For instance, office parties are often dysfunctional events that reflect and expose the problems festering in the office. The animosities that build up in the hothouse environment of a business can, notoriously, explode upon the introduction of intoxicants.

Some of the cabdrivers had their problems with each other, but they weren’t cooped up with each other. Any time they wanted, they could walk away from the car and the radio and take in the landscape of wherever they had wound up.

In many businesses, success brought employees closer to management. For cab drivers, success often took the form of a nice long ride, leading you far away from the bosses and other everyday annoyances.

Despite the occasional drama, employees of other businesses often looked forward all year to old-fashioned office Christmas parties as a break in monotony.

Many of our guys didn’t even come to ours, however.

Some didn’t like the idea of everybody knowing it was in a tavern, since they were professional drivers. Others were kept away by a phenomenon I used to call “one last ride.”

That’s what a driver says to himself shortly before any social event. It’s often followed by “Too late anyway. Might as well get another one.”

But some drivers came. Some even went home to pick up wives and kids, giving them an opportunity, perhaps for the only time, to see some of the other drivers they talked about.

The tavern didn’t look the same. Normally, it was dark and dingy, the site, once a week in some years, of a lingerie show.

For the night, Christmas lights hung across the front window. Inside, there were more lights, a Christmas tree, a menorah, free food. The juke box was given a night off from rock and roll and sad country songs, replaced by Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby and their ilk. Sometimes, we dressed up a fat guy in a Santa suit.

People got a chance to say hello to each other, and give each other little gifts, and it was nice. But after the first couple of years, we had a hard time sustaining the fiction that it had anything to do with Christmas.

Eventually, we rented a hall and had a more elaborate party, one where we could feel better about attending with wives and girlfriends.

We did it in December. It was a lovely evening.

We never did it again.

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