I grew up in a rooming house. It seemed natural to me to have strange men or women wandering through our apartment to pay the rent or use the phone. For Christmas, my parents often invited some of their tenants, who had no family, or whose family was far away, to join us for the big night–which was Christmas Eve in our house.

Linda, Jimmy, and brother, Billy

The Janczeks, and their son, Jimmy, who lived in the three-room apartment at the back of the second floor, often joined us. Our family had become friends with the Janczeks because Jimmy and my brother were about the same age. Neither of Jimmy’s parents had finished high school. Mr. Janczek was often out of work, and usually in debt, buying stuff he couldn’t afford on credit–and then having it repossessed. Jimmy had learned not to expect much–and that what he had could be taken away.

Before the Janczeks came down to spend the evening with us, my younger and older brother and I watched solemnly as Dad pulled the sleigh bells off the shelf in our front hall closet. “When Santa finishes putting out all the gifts, he’ll shake these sleigh bells as a signal that he’s done. Then, we have to give him a few minutes to leave. It we see Santa, we destroy the magic, and he won’t come back.” We all watched Dad lay out the leather strap, festooned with fat brass bells, festively jingling, and exchanged gleeful smiles.

No going to bed for us to wait for Santa! When he arrived, we would be right here, ears pricked for the jingle of sleigh bells. We weren’t like those dumb kids who had to wake up in the morning to find piles of gifts. No wonder they had no faith and didn’t believe in Santa! It was obvious that while they slept, their parents just pulled stashes of gifts out of hiding to place under the tree.

But now the tree was empty beneath. Closing my eyes, I imagined the brightly colored packages piled at its base. I grabbed Dad’s hand and skipped across the room at his side, twirling and babbling about Santa.

We passed through the doorway that separated our living room from the long hallway

Linda, at an early Christmas. The toy stove got hot enough to bake cupcakes!

leading into the dining room. Dad closed the door to the living room, shutting out Christmas behind us. “Remember, he said, no peeking for Santa.”

“I’ll make sure no one does,” said Paul, glaring at me.” I ignored him. I just knew it was Santa coming while we waited because every relative and close friend was right in front of our eyes.

When the Janczeks came down to our flat, Dad explained about Santa to Jimmy, who shook his head. “There ain’t no Santa!” he declared, but looked longingly to the closed hallway door. Dad cocked an eyebrow. He then bent over to talk to Jimmy, his tone impishly serious. “If you don’t believe in Santa, he may not come.”

My four-year-old brother Billy pulled Jimmy to the floor. “Let’s play trucks!” and they buzzed and pushed the toys around legs of the grown-ups, sitting around in the dining room. The kids got more and more antsy a we waited for Santa,  jumping around with excitement. My older brother, Paul, pulled my hair, so I had to punch him. He slugged me back—much harder. “Owwww!” I screamed.

“Crybaby!” he taunted.

“Paul, Linda, both of you! Stop that!” said Dad.

Paul, Linda, and Billy after Santa came one year

The next moment we were grinning like maniacs, running to the closed hallway door. Despite Dad’s admonition, I’d dashed down the hallway when Dad wasn’t looking and pressed my face to the rug, peering under the narrow crack at the base of the door. I caught my breath and gestured frantically to Paul to come  over, mouthing the words, “Hurry up. Quick.”

He forgot his enforcer role in the excitement and put his head down on the floor too, and both of us, butts sticking up in the air, saw it. Weren’t those Santa’s boots—moving across the living room floor? “Do you see that?” I whispered. Paul nodded solemnly.

“Hey, you two, get away from that door. Do you want Santa to go without leaving your presents?” called Dad from the dining room.

“We saw his boots, Daddy!  We saw his boots!” I jumped up and down through the hallway.

“There ain’t no Santa,” said Jimmy.

Jingle, jingle, jingle. The distinctive ring of sleigh bells stopped all conversation. More jingling and then a deep, sonorous voice, “MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE! MERRY CHRISTMAS!  HO HO HO.”

Jimmy’s eyes got wide as he looked from one of us kids to the other agape like the rest of us. “I believe!” he shouted. “I believe,” like a newly baptized Christian.

Dad smiled the biggest grin of all.  We waited the requisite ten minutes. Then, Dad walked down the hall, all the kids crowding, chattering, giggling behind him, like Bremen children following the Pied Piper. Dad threw open the door to the living room, and we all burst through, hands to mouths at the sight. A  glittering pile of gifts, many with Jimmy’s name on them,  spilled out from under the tree.

Redlined tells a first-hand story about a West Side Chicago family’s personal struggles and dreams intersecting with the racial upheavals of the 1960s.


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