Although we moved from New York City to Northern New Jersey in 1960, we and our children often visited the Lutheran Senior Home on Staten Island for holiday events throughout the year. We took the hour drive up, and my mother-in-law, Hildur, an ardent supporter of the Home, came over on the Staten Island Ferry from her home in New York City; an hour’s trip. After the festivities, we took her with us to our home for the family Christmas celebration. She stayed a week, then returned to New York City via bus.
During one Christmas season, your youngsters had severe colds, so I came up by myself to meet her for the pre-Christmas celebration for the residents. I was asked to bring small gifts, cookies, and to dress up as one of Santa’s elves. I weighed jolly well over two hundred thirty pounds at the time.
The drive was on a cloudy day, thus I couldn’t orient myself with the sun. Naturally, I was a bit uneasy about making the correct series of turns off the Interstate and onto the maze of local streets. Such a mistake would be major, forcing me to make a u-turn just before the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and wend my way through totally unfamiliar streets to return to the Interstate, make another U-turn, and go back onto the highway.
I missed my turn-off. Despite the season, I muttered !#)$( @(*%%)(#$)$%#, pulled to a parking spot and checked my map. Hmmmmm. There seemed to be a direct way to the Lutheran Home, about twelve miles away. Just to make sure, I got out and stopped several passers-by to confirm my route. “Oh, yes,” they chorused, after we wished each other a Merry Christmas, “Just turn left after the intersection at the park.”
Contentedly, I left in heavy traffic, Before my turn, an automobile collision blocked the roadway and the policeman routed me onto a side street. When I tried ask him for help, he shouted at me with New York City friendliness to “Drive on, Lady! There’s an accident!”
To say I became disoriented and lost is an understatement. I drove through neighborhoods that were definitely on the wrong side of town. Except for trucks and buses, traffic was sparse. Somewhat squalid people would occasionally shout imprecations at me, and at red lights, some passersby would come up to beg. As they took in my elf costume, I gave them a cheery smile, shook the bells on my hat and wrist, and handed out candy canes. They would thank me and wave me on.
Those were the days before cell phones, and being savvy about New York City neighborhoods, I realized it was not safe to stop at a sidewalk telephone booth. There wasn’t a policeman to be seen.
After more than half an hour of fear and frustration, and knowing I was already late and everyone would be worried, I pulled to the curb so I could read my map. Abruptly, I heard people shouting. Looking up, I saw – Santa Claus, about seven feet tall, with his sack full of treats, which he gave to children who ran out of the crowded ghetto houses. He was carrying something odd cradled in his right arm. It was a shotgun. Tears welling in my eyes, I pulled out.
A mile further on, I came to a filling station sitting on a triangle formed by two intersecting roadways. Behind it was a small park with a bank of public telephones! How peculiar. All were in use, but I pulled in, and taking out my dime, stood waiting. One by one the participants began staring at me and my tear-streaked face. Their Spanish conversations were not on the phone at all! The men were drug dealers making deals as a customer would come up, make their purchase, then leave. Everyone froze. I gave them all a big smile, told them in my broken Spanish I was lost and was meeting my children’s grandmother – abuleta. I waved my jingling hat in one hand, and my dime with the other.
Immediately, without saying a word, one of the men hung up. He handed me his phone and gently held me by the arm while I called the Lutheran Home. Business thrived around us.
When I spoke to the receptionist and told part of my tale and my location, she was appalled. “That’s the worst section of town. Drugs and shootings and, oh my! Are there any police around?”
“No. But there’s a gas station.” I gave her the name.
“Get over there and ask for help! There isn’t a police station within miles!”
When I hung up, my new-found guardian cheerfully took me to the gas station. It was interesting to note his phone was ringing but no one else answered it. There was also a “guard” watching my car.
Grasping hands with him and the owner, I told my tale. They hugged me and then drew me a map. Apparently, I was only two miles from the Lutheran Home. We gave each other hugs, kisses, and with many a Feliz Navidad, I drove off as a merry group of six men stood in the street, waving and throwing kisses.
Five minutes later I arrived at the Lutheran Home, where nearly everyone was waiting for me to offer a raucous heroine’s welcome.
Hildur and I fell into each other’s arms, crying uncontrollably. It was the beginning of a warm relationship between two women who had spent many years in a tense relationship.
Best Christmas present we ever gave each other!