It's a good feeling when you are young to think the world is against only you, but while walking the streets of New York's Lower East Side the squalid tenements could steal away the luxury of your own misery.
It was a cold, bleak Christmas afternoon. The snow that fell a few days before on the city had all but disappeared, except for small piles that had drifted into corners, under stairs, or into the little-used alleys, all of it covered with black soot.
I walked hunched over, my hands in my coat pockets, clutching my last $5 bill as I headed for a cheap, small "Mom and Pop" Italian Restaurant.
It was a Christmas when a "please reverse the charges" phone call was made and no cards or presents were sent home.
Glancing up at the drab tenements I wondered what parents told the children crowded into the small apartments when they asked about Santa Claus said chimneys.
New York was new to me, and being a student, I was lucky to have a parttime job as a copy boy on a newspaper, even if the hours were bad and the pay low.
A blast of cold wind, the kind that makes you turn your body sideways, brought back a memory of a Christmas day spent in Miami, when a lonely sailor sat on a bench along Biscayne Bay staring at the water.
I knew I would have traded the pink flamingos, palm trees and the firecrackers popping off, for the slush along the curbstones and the carols being played by a three-piece Salvation Army Band. When you grow up in the North, Christmas belongs to winter.
There was also a Christmas day spent strapped to a 20mm. cannon in Saipan harbor. You were trying to breathe while your eyes smarted from the thick, black smoke, spread from a fast-moving harbor craft to black out the ships in the area from the high-flying Japanese bombers, who had no respect for our traditions.
The restaurant was three steps below the street in what was once the basement of an old brownstone house.
There were six tables, all different, one with a porcelain top in a rectangular shape, another round and the others, wood or metal. The chairs were whatever they had picked up at some second-hand shop, but the place was warm and clean and the food reputed to be good.
There was no memu, only what "Mama" decided she wanted to cook that day, but there was always good pasta with tasty sauces.
It was 3 p.m. and it would be two hours before it was time to report for work, so the luxury of empty time was spent with Pop at a round table, in silence, as he read an Italian-language newspaper.
The restaurant became my dining room and living room, as the aroma of sauces and cheese coming from the kitchen brought back strong memories of home.
After the holiday greetings, Pop went off to get a bottle of homemade red wine for his only customer and said there would be no charge for one glass because of the occasion.
Mom, not bothering to disturb her husband, brought out a plate of steaming linguine covered with a thick, mushroom sauce, placed it down and said, "This will be good for you."
The little bell on the top of the door jingled, making everyone look up to see who the newest customer would be, and four young neighborhood girls entered.
They sat and talked in excited voices, this being their Waldorf. They were wearing their best dresses and were clearly happy to be away from the adults who crowded their tenement rooms.
Wanting to spend some Christmas money, they ordered a cheese pizza and four Cokes.
While listening to their soft Puerto Rican accents I wondered again about the $5 in my pocket and whether I could afford a third glass of homemade red.
It would have to last until payday, two days away.
The wine was 35 cents, and the linguine a dollar seventy-five.
There would have to be a sandwhich for dinner and maybe a couple of beers after work in order to watch a late movie at a bar.
The first pizza demolished, the girls were now pooling their money for another pizza and Coke when they found they didn't have enough.
Knowing the cost of pizza and Cokes I called Pop and told him to give them another order and put it on my bill.
When I got up to leave, the pizza came to their table.
Pop pointed to me and the girls looked around.
Their smiles were many Christmas mornings as they shouted "Merry Christmas."
Feeling like Diamond Jim Brady, somehow the long walk to work was warmer as I though about the possible missed dinner, and even the anticipation of canceling the afterwork beer and TV movie didn't seem too bad.