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Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Christmas Saga

From the Vault Dept.: One more old mined-from-Metroland Christmas piece, another in what had been the continuing saga of Uncle Ned, this one from 1986.


A SPIRIT-OF-CHRISTMAS MORAL lies buried somewhere within this saga, but for the most part it’s an accurate reminiscence of the holiday antics of a couple of guys in the town where I grew up. What made the experience so poignant was that I was related to one of them.

The town itself is a New England charmer, one of those 18th-century riverside, light-industry towns that has since been taken over by commuters. New York City commuters, I should add, who move to the country and then try to make it look like the city they fled.

Twenty years ago we were getting just the edge of the wedge as this Manhattan attorney or that successful actor bought houses without much hullabaloo.

Then there was a man named Packer who gave up work in PR or advertising or some such occupation to buy a country store, a little Gristede’s a couple of blocks from my parents’ house. He believed that personalized service would offset the need to ask prices higher than posted at the A&P down the street.

The store opened one Christmas Day with a party and Packer’s pledge that this store was here to serve the people and hereafter would be open 365 days a year late into every night. With a special on fresh-killed turkeys for New Year’s. The mistake he made was in selling one of those birds to an uncle of mine.

Packer was in his 30s, thin when he got here, balding and mustachioed and nervous-looking. As he stopped wearing neckties he put on weight, but it suited him. His hair got shaggy and he took to wearing an open vest as a sort of genial-shopkeeper uniform.

And he talked very enthusiastically about the refreshing new life he and his wife were enjoying, getting in touch with neighbors and neighborhood at a pace far slower than Manhattan inspires.

The drawback was doing business with my Uncle Ned.

Ned was the scourge of the local shops, a ne’er-do-well who made up in charm what he lacked in cash. He worked for a local contractor when he worked at all, and kept a number of bank accounts in order to kite checks for days at a time.

Kites come down eventually, and a check from Ned was as worthless as yesterday. It got to be a joke amongst the downtown shopkeepers that the initiation for a new retailer was that first returned check of my uncle’s.

Ned seemed like such an old man to me at the time (at ten every adult seems ancient); he, too, was in his 30s. My mother, his sister, was one of a circle of kin who fed him regularly and threw him a dollar or two, largess that came with lectures or (from frowsy Aunt Bertha) spiritual lessons.

So the inevitable. Ned bought a pile of food and gewgaws at Packer’s newly-opened store that Christmas; Ned’s check bounced the day after the holiday.

Packer threatened to take him to court, even after being urged by the other shopkeepers to let it go in the spirit of Christmas (and as a lesson). So my folks paid Packer the money. That led him to decide that Ned and my parents were barred from the store.

Shortly after New Year’s I strolled in with some friends, was recognized and ordered to leave. My father visited Packer, exchanged curses and insults and urged all his friends to boycott the place.

It was a measly protest. There’s something about a conveniece store with late hours that can break down the most dogged resistance, and friend after friend would apologize to Mom and Dad with the excuse of a quick need for this or that.

Packer’s behavior got stranger and stranger month by month. He withdrew from the town functions he had embraced so enthusiastically and that celebrated “friendly service” became surly.

And the store started closing on Sundays; on holidays; on Christmas.

The kicker came on that first Christmas Packer didn’t open. A nasty storm had dropped a ton of sticky snow and Ned was hustling to make a few bucks helping a buddy with a snowplow. Naturally, they came to my parents’ house.

To get my Dad’s car out of the way, Ned put it in front of Packer’s store. An upstairs window shot up and Packer’s fat face was thrust out. “You get that outta there!” he bellowed.

Ned made an impolite gesture.

It was like a Laurel & Hardy movie. A mess of snow slid off the roof onto Packer’s head, which he then hit on the sash as he pulled his head inside. Within a minute he was out front banging on the hood of the offending vehicle.

Ned thought this was terribly funny and shouted comic insults at “old Scrooge,” a cry that my snowball-throwing friends and I took up. “Take that, Scrooge,” I remember shouting as I lobbed a fine wet snowball his way.

You know that cops in a town so small stay on top of the feuds and anxieties, so Officer Rotundo wasn’t surprised at the problem or the participants. He broke up the mess and told Ned to move the car off Packer’s private property.

He also ordered Ned’s buddy to plow the place. Packer protested, insisting he was very capable of shoveling himself, but Rotundo said the plowing was free. “That’s because you’re going to open up today,” he added. “I’ll be back in an hour to make sure.”

Was a craving for special attention at the heart of Packer’s  withdrawal? He complied with the order surprisingly quickly and those first few cars were pulling in in no time at all, with shopper after shopper congratulating Packer on his change of heart. “We really needed you today,” they said.

As the sky turned a deep winter blue, a cold and soggy Ned went into the store and squished over to the counter with a pile of dollar bills in his hand. “I’m buying the coffee for the rest of the night,” he declared.

I wasn’t there for this part; I can only go on Ned’s self-congratulatory reminiscence, ever more colorful year after year.

It seems that the enemies eyed one another for a time, before Ned came out with an utterly unexpected statement. “I finally got Christmas under control,” he said. “I don’t buy any presents and I don’t expect to get any.”

“So what’s this coffee money for?” asked Packer.

Ned shrugged. “I don’t know. Money’s too much of a responsibility for me.”

Packer lit a space heater. Ned found a chair. I’ve never known my uncle to be interested in any kind of work at all, but it seems that he got Packer to talk about PR oor ad work or whatever it was the man used to do; then Ned talked about construction.

Then Ned got hired to do some work on Packer’s store and the apartment above it.

Of course, Packer’s biggest problem was running the store as a family operation. He really didn’t trust people, which had made his work in the city so rough. As he got to know Ned, however, I found my uncle more and more behind the counter at the little shop, which stayed open 365 days a year for many years thereafter.

The shop is long gone, of course, replaced by a video rental place. The Packers moved on, farther into the New England wilds, to I think a town in New Hampshire to run a sporting-goods store.

Ned’s up to the same old stuff, still dumping his lousy checks on the new businesses that open and fail in the town usually in a few weeks, so he’s certainly getting his money’s worth.

And he tells the Packer saga every Christmas, and isn’t it nice to hear something different for a change?

Metroland Magazine, 24 December 1986

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