Transcript

6:

Christmas
Transcript

Originally aired 12.22.1995

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/6

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From the WBEZ Chicago, it's Your Radio Playhouse.

Calvin Bridges

Hi. My name is Reverend Calvin Bridges. And I'm the minister of music of at the Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church. And the music that you will hear tonight is being provided by the Faith Tabernacle Voices and the Faith Tabernacle Youth Voices.

Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church Choir

[CHOIR SINGING]

Ira Glass

Your Radio Playhouse. Well, it's a special treat tonight to bring you music, over the course of the hour, from the Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church down at 82nd and Stony on Chicago's South Side. Our thinking was that by this point in the Christmas season, people are pretty much tired of the regular Christmas records. So we thought that we would bring different music.

I'm Ira Glass. Also this evening, we have amazing new stories by Reginald Gibbons, and Beau O'Reilly, and others. We have the debut of a new radio theater company. How often do you really get to say those words in 1990? A new radio theater company created by writer David Sedaris, his sister Amy, a bunch of other people. They call themselves the Pine Tree Gang.

You know, the thing about Christmas is, that a Christmas, people are like themselves but more so. You know the saying that you can tell a lot about a person in a crisis? You can tell a lot about a person at Christmas also. That is not because Christmas is a crisis. As one of the producers on this program, Nancy Updike, has suggested this week, it's because Christmas is the one day in the American year when, more than any other, we are, all of us, handed exactly the same stage props with which to manufacture a day. The same expectations, the same presents, the same tree, the same idea of the meal, all that is handed to all of us. And everybody is trying to fashion a day out of exactly the same materials. And when people do that, you could see exactly who chooses, what they choose, and why. At Christmas, the kind hearted have an event on which they can exercise their kind heartedness. The impatient have more reason to be impatient. The manipulative and controlling have a set of meals and gifts with which to manipulate others. Everybody is themselves but more so.

Which brings us to our radio play. Writer David Sedaris had an odd experience in his life. Namely, one of the first, big, public things that he did in his life is, he went on to National Public Radio and told the story of how he had worked as an elf at Santa Land at Macy's Department Store for two Christmases.

And pretty much for the course of the two years which followed, every Christmas he would get lots of calls from magazines, and newspapers, and TV, and radio. People who wanted to hear yet another Christmas story, wanted him to unfold another Christmas story, bring one out. Here's the Christmas guy. You know, here's the Christmas guy. And these requests, they inundated him and confounded him. No one wants to be considered, for the rest of their life, as an elf. And so I think that was part of the inspiration for his radio play this evening. A premier radio play of our new radio group here at Your Radio Playhouse. The Pinetree Gang.

Playing Gene Larkin

Last Christmas I decided to splurge and treat myself to a really extravagant present, something I'd always wanted, myself. Not who I wish I was, or what others wanted me to be. No. Just plain old me. No fancy extras, no cash return, no exchange, just myself, Gene Larkin, wrapped up in a bright, brown ribbon of self acceptance. Take it or leave it. Leaving it, saying, no to myself was a pattern as old as the checkerboard plaid I used to cover my windows. I decided to break my old pattern and set fire to my curtains, allowing both myself and others to start dealing with the real me. The me who asks, who says you can't drive to work in a go kart when you feel like it? The me who says, let's start cooking with grapes for a change.

I went through my life, removing all the barricades that said, no, you can't do that. Because me, I can do anything I want. One of the things I can do is type. And another is to think about myself and my needs. I just never had the time or the opportunity to really knuckle down and practice my craft. After they had fired me for parking my go kart in the boss's handicapped space, I found myself with a lot of extra time on my hands. And the opportunity, it came by way of the Center for Annex Learning, a former indoor skating facility the city fathers have turned into what they call a school without walls.

The classrooms are separated by curtains, but that's just for the sake of privacy. The real walls are in our minds. And the center is devoted to helping us tear them down brick by brick. I can't stand walls, not anymore. You should see what I've done with my house. I'm still working on it. But in the meantime, I dropped by the Center and signed up for a course called, "Writing for the Holidays." Because, as the teacher said,

Playing Teacher

Chances are, if you've got a story to tell, you've got a story to sell. How many of you would like that [JINGLING BELLS] jingling sound to come from your pockets? Would you like that?

Playing Irish Student

I sure would love it.

Playing Woman 1

Love it.

Playing Teacher

If it sounds too good to be true, then think again. Picture all the magazines and newspapers in this country lying side by side on a football field. That's a lot, right? And every single one of them is searching for a Christmas story to run in that all-important holiday issue. Even the radio and TV are looking for things like that. Newsletters, websites, town criers, you name it. It's a way of making yourself some real money. A thought that united everyone in the class.

Playing Woman 1

How much money are we talking about? Can I get an advance? I want some boots.

Playing Coach

Can the money be spent on lodging?

Playing Teacher

The money can be spent on anything you want, lodging, boots, gas, even stamps.

Playing Irish Student

What about drink and games of chance?

Playing Teacher

That too. But first, you've got to sell your story. Which means you'll have to know your audience.

Class

[GRUMBLING AND COMPLAINING SOUNDS]

Playing Teacher

People, listen, listen. If you spent last Christmas, I don't know, coaching midget league basketball or designing a patio, chances are, the editors over at Cat Fancy or Chocolatier aren't going to be too interested.

Playing Coach

But can't you spend the holidays coaching midget league, and like cats, and chocolate? I do.

Playing Teacher

No. Of course, you can do both. But, the chances are, your one line, I like cats, won't be enough for an editor who's audience is made up of people who more than like cats. For these people, the cat or the chocolate, needs to be the focus of the whole, holiday story.

Playing Woman 1

What if the magazine is for people who love not liking anything?

Playing Teacher

Then give them my number right away.

Class

[LAUGHTER]

Playing Teacher

No, seriously, the question's a good one. This young person seems to know what the magazine wants, and that's the first step. If you want to be published, you have to find a magazine and really stake it out. Study it under a good, strong lamp. The fine print, even the advertisements will give you an indication of who these people are and how the editors try to reach them. Yes?

Playing Southern Student

I once made a strong lamp out of a coconut husk my mother's brother's cousin Colonel Jeremy Hackford found on the beach at Topsoil Island. The husk was tattered and sunburnt, resembling the head of one of grandmother's servants. A moon-faced child by the name of--

Playing Teacher

Great. So, I want each and every one of you to do that. Take a magazine and make it your own personal project. At the end of this course, I expect every single one of you to hold a contract in your hands. Let me rephrase that. If any of you don't want to publish a holiday story, I'm afraid I can't help you.

Playing Woman 1

I'd really love to be published, especially around the holidays. I'd take that money, the paper clutched tight, like a prize, like a ticket. And I'd use it to fly, like a soft prayer-carpet. I'd mount it and work our magic out of here, out of the window, and over the stained quilt of this life, this town, where every stitch is a fence, a barrier, a landscape, embroidered with no. A land sewn, not to comfort, but to smother. I'd take that carpet--

Playing Irish Student

What if you'd really like to be published, but certain people think that your dead and it's better off to keep it that way?

Playing Coach

What if someone found a stray kitten in the locker room while coaching midget league and eating chocolate? Can I send it to three magazines?

Playing Woman 1

Is it all right to turn in a manuscript written in blood or semen?

Playing Teacher

Typed, double spaced, unless it's written for one of the many handwriting analysis or calligraphy magazines.

Playing Woman 1

Do 'zines count?

Playing Irish Student

Is justifiable political manslaughter acceptable in a Christmas story?

Playing Gene Larkin

It was a great class. Everyone was really into it. And the teacher, he had this way of firing us up and cracking the type of whip you knew wouldn't break the surface of your skin, no matter how close you got to the many barbed tips. Like a lot of us, I love to write but often have to wait for an office party or a rowdy Presbyterian funeral for the mood to hit me. The teacher though, he explained how those same feelings of jubilation or sorrow can be reproduced through drugs and alcohol or tossing a hard, cold body into a shallow grave.

Playing Irish Student

The grave part, it's like you reached in and pulled the thoughts out of my very heart.

Playing Coach

Or the whiff of a sneaker yanked off the foot of a husky 13-year-old with a sprained ankle and a 39-point game average?

Class

[MURMURS OF DISAGREEMENT AND CONFUSION]

Playing Teacher

People, people, what I'm trying to say, is that we're all people.

Playing Gene Larkin

He was so smart that way, always reminding us that we were all people, always taking us that one step further.

Playing Teacher

All right people, you've got your magazines. Now, let's start thinking about the stories. Christmas people, what does that bring to mind. Yvonne?

Playing Woman 1

Christmas. All right. Christmas, the holidays. A really small knapsack filled with nail polish. It's lying there on the futon. I see something. It's something corduroy crumbled up and next to the TV. And there's a hair brush, my hair brush, used to prop open the window. It's cold outside and raining. And I can hear my roommate crying in the next room.

Class

[LAUGHTER]

Playing Coach

So it's minus 12 degrees outside, and I'm at an out-of-town game coaching the Lady Diamondbacks. Can you believe it? You couldn't find a sweeter, more talented group of girls. And every one of them was 100% drug free. I made sure of that baby.

Playing Irish Student

She turned to me on last time saying, don't do it Jerry Maguire. You were born for better things. Drink up now son. It's Christmas time, and we've got an early morning's Mass tomorrow. [CHOKING BACK TEARS] That was the last time I saw her.

Playing Teacher

I like that, corduroy and the Lady Diamondbacks. What else?

Playing Southern Student

The sky was cloudless, the color of a burnished silver platter on that day when daddy and I set out with our aging spaniel Curtis in search of, what we considered to be, the perfect Christmas tree. A magnificent--

Playing Teacher

Conflict, good. Every story needs it. You can sit down now, sister.

Playing Gene Larkin

The class started in early September, so as to allow us to finish our stories early enough to allow magazines, what they call, their lead-time. Back-breaking unions force these publishers to be ready weeks, sometimes months in advance. To us, Christmas falls somewhere towards the end of December. But to these editors, that holiday has already come and gone. They're working on Valentine's Day or President's Day, or even Saint Patrick's by that time. It was hard to think about the holidays when, technically, it was late summer, and people were still dressed in shorts and halter tops. But the teacher, he did his best to get us into the spirit.

Playing Teacher

All right people, I've got this fragrant, eight foot spruce. What do you say, we trim it?

Playing Coach

Now, in the daylight?

Playing Teacher

We can mask the window.

Playing Coach

Then how will I know when my nephew's come to pick me up? You know I have to leave early on Thursdays.

Playing Irish Student

If you don't mind, I think I'll wait outside in the student pub. There's something about trees inside that makes me nervous.

Playing Woman 1

Don't ornaments carry a lot of baggage?

Playing Teacher

They might, they very well might. But I'm ready to face my demons. How about you?

Playing Gene Larkin

It wasn't easy or fun, but we did it. We did it to remind ourselves what we were writing about. Outside the building, the trees were green and leafy. But in this room, it was Christmas, even to the several Jews and heretics. A few people stepped outside to smoke or make phone calls. And in a way, I think they really missed out. Maybe they could just hold Christmas inside their heads by re-reading old catalogs or paying bills. But for most of us, these little exercises really helped. The teacher had us start each class with a carol.

Class

[HUMMING CHRISTMAS CAROLS]

Playing Gene Larkin

And we all shaved ice, wrapped empty boxes as gifts, and sent fake, funny checks to charities. One day, he even brought chestnuts into the class and roasted them, right there, on a small, charcoal grill.

Class

[COUGHING, CHOKING]

Playing Gene Larkin

He made a chart of what each magazine paid per word and read us a few examples of their previous holiday stories.

Playing Teacher

It was grueling work, but I did it. I'd received the doe late on Christmas Eve, and had her fully mounted by the next morning, just in time to make one little girl's dreams come true. That's "Doe for a Deer," from the December '94 issue of Mounted Game Monthly.

Playing Coach

That was very beautiful.

Playing Teacher

Yes, it was. So how many words did we have there, word count, people?

Playing Woman 1

He stretched the skin on a pallet.

Playing Irish Student

According to my calculations, and I got a little bit bleary at the sad parts, I'd say that that story clocked in at about 945 words.

Playing Teacher

All right. And this particular magazine pays how much per word?

Playing Coach

$0.55 per word.

Playing Teacher

So that amounts to what? That's $472 and some change for our friend, Mr. Carlton Burke, from mounted game monthly. Yes?

Playing Woman 1

But this class cost me $600.

Playing Irish Student

Hey, that's right.

Playing Woman 1

This is a rip-off.

Playing Gene Larkin

You just can't win.

Playing Coach

The whole system is rigged. Isn't there a way this Carlton person could've made more money?

Playing Teacher

Yes, there is. He could've sold it to a better magazine or padded it with adjectives and adverbs.

Playing Gene Larkin

He went back through the story, demonstrating how the author might have made extra money by employing a more fragrant and descriptive vocabulary.

Playing Teacher

Take this one word, needle. What else could he have called it? Yes?

Playing Irish Student

A sharp, pin-like device used for piercing holiday fabric or the flesh of a doe shot and mounted in order to serve as a gift for the holidays?

Playing Teacher

That's terrific. See class, he's taken one word and stretched it into a 29 word sentence, with the added value of $19.95. And he's related it all to the holidays. Yes?

Playing Southern Student

I remember, one time, the fields behind granddaddy's smoke house were flooded. And the starlings circled and quested, crisscrossing like so many fleeting--

Playing Teacher

What do you know. Listen people, we've only got three weeks left until Halloween. Let's do a little exercise. How many of you remember what it felt like to rise at 5:00 AM and shovel the driveway so that your visiting relatives would have a place to pitch their Christmas tent?

Playing Coach

I do. It was dark then. I had to use a lantern, and it smelled like gas.

Playing Irish Student

Huh, the O'Shaughnessys on my mother's side, they thought they were all too good for tents. Talk about hard work. I'd be up at 3:00 in the morning, digging their lean-tos and huts out of the cold ground, without even gloves to project me.

Playing Gene Larkin

Everything the teacher said opened a door or triggered a memory of some kind.

Playing Teacher

How many of you have accidentally blinded a family member with a tree limb or an icicle?

Playing Gene Larkin

I have.

Playing Southern Student

I'd forgotten all about that.

Playing Irish Student

Guilty as charged.

Playing Woman 1

Talk about a Christmas.

Playing Coach

Just a team member and a benched one.

Playing Teacher

Remember people, you're all just types. Now, let's get out there and make some money.

Playing Gene Larkin

He never asked what we were working on, never assigned us any homework, or shared any of the holiday stories he had written. He lead by example and taught on the sheer strength of his character. Over the weeks, I came to think of him and the other students as family. They started getting on my nerves in little ways. But I couldn't hate them, because, as time passed, we grew to resemble one another, growing out our nails and wearing identical wind-breakers.

The teacher noticed the change and discouraged us from talking about our stories, for fear of inciting the sort of jealousy that often results in bloodshed or small fires. On the last day of class, we each arrived carrying our completed holiday story, ready for submission, each including a stamped, self-addressed envelope. And then we celebrated with punch and carols, laughing and reminiscing until the sun set on that late October afternoon.

Oh, there were the usual pledges to stay in touch. Numbers were exchanged and casts were signed, but I think we knew in our hearts that this would be our last get together. Having become professional holiday writers, we were no longer friends but rivals. Wishing each other the best, while quietly hoping for the worse. I moved on with my new life.

I spent a few weeks getting re-acquainted with myself, and then I took a job at one of the several petting mangers my town sets up each year during the holiday season. It was right after Thanksgiving. And I had a bit to drink. Maybe I was showing off. Maybe I was just a little too happy to be me. I drove my go-kart into the petting manger. And some of these animals, the camels and so forth, they spook a little too easy.

The next thing I knew, it was two weeks later. And I was flat on my back in the hospital, waking from a coma.

Nurse

Oh, doctor, the man in 26B just woke up from his coma.

Doctor

Oh, good. You can send him home now.

Playing Gene Larkin

I was discharged and returned to my house without walls, with a few scratches, a significant headache, and a prescription for a couple of salves they thought might heal a few of my bed sores. It was December, and I was in the drug store having my prescription filled. There was a stomach virus going around, and the pharmacist's line was 30, 40 people long. I was standing back near the magazine rack, thumbing through the current issue of Cotton Belt Lifestyles, when I read what sounded like a familiar voice.

Playing Southern Student

We'd gone to bed late that Christmas Eve. Taka, Soil, Prescott, and I lay huddled in our beds, rowdy as newborn lambs vying for a swollen teat. And while I have no recollection of the exact moment, sleep miraculously overcame us at some point during that long and restless night. The world spunt on it's frosty axis, and morning arrived. The brilliant sun trumpeting the arrival of this day when children celebrate the birth of a king.

Playing Gene Larkin

I started skimming ahead.

Playing Southern Student

That was the year each child received a slingshot. Oh, it wasn't much, just a rubber band attached to a wishbone from one of old man Chesterton's tom turkeys. But oh how those bones were polished to a sheen. The rubber band attached with pride and precision. Now, I can catch us a squirrel for supper, said Prescott, the youngest. And we all laughed, as children are wont to do. It's a sound that haunts me still, stops me in my tracks on this cold winter day, as Prescott, so young and eager to please, would not live to see another Christmas. February is the coolest month.

Playing Gene Larkin

I picked up another magazine, then another, grabbing them randomly off the shelves.

Playing Coach

Basketball season had started early that year. And with my starting forward out with a torn meniscus, it didn't seem my Christmas was going to merry. I laced up my street shoes and stared out the window into the parking lot. We were expecting a minor dusting, but it was coming down hard, the flakes the size of those Styrofoam pellets they use to package trophies. Trophies, better put that thought out of your mind, baby, I said to myself.

It's three hours before the playoff. And I'm stuck in Manitoba, spoon feeding cranberry juice cocktail to my star point-guard Shanethra, who's got a stomach virus, and all the trimmings, and a fever of 102. The bus has moved on, and I'm there with Shanethra, who's flat on her back and her best friend Stephanie Twospears, who's sweating many, many rivers. I'm in a Holiday Inn, and the room is hot and smells of powder, modeling glue, and teak. There was a wreath on the door, and nothing good was on TV.

Playing Woman 1

She wanted to shake it, not just the tree or the jagged ice daggers dripping from the roof, but the whole damn thing. She wanted to shake it like Stolly shook his mane of dark hair, the color of night, the color of ravens, of crows calling out in their hoarse whispers. Stolly shaking his head while playing the bass, that night before Christmas, silent night, the holy night. They spiked two grams of horse and ran wild, ran like the wind that brings up from a fire. She wanted to shake it.

Playing Irish Student

The wreath swayed as the police pounded on the other side of the door. Go away and leave us in peace, my mother shouted. I don't know nothing about the disappearance of the O'Shaughnessy brothers. No one here does. No go away with ya. She motioned to me with her cane, and, I remember, she had a wee' bit o' tinsel on the slope of her shoulder.

High-tail it out the back door and get word to Paddy McShane, she whispered. Go on now, go. Which I did. I sloped out the back way, and ran with all my might. I ran past O'Brians Pub and McNamara's Alehouse, past O'Malley's Tavern and Feeny's Roadhouse. I passed Father McGonegal coming out of the church, and I shouted, for the love of Christmas, who's seen Paddy McShane?

Playing Gene Larkin

It made me smile to think of my friends and that wonderful preseason Christmas we'd spent getting to know one another. It seemed they had turned in their stories and had fulfilled their dreams. Me, I had never gotten around to writing my story, much less mailing it. My envelope had been blank.

I turned to the woman behind me and told he all about it. Then she turned to the person behind her, and so forth, and so on, until it made its way to the radio producer with stomach cramps and a deadline for his last-minute Christmas story. So I guess I did find my audience after all, didn't I. Good night all, and God bless.

Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church Choir

[SILENT NIGHT]

Act One.

Ira Glass

Little music from the Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church from Chicago's South Side. We'll be hearing music from them throughout the hour, and we're going to have a visit with them at the end of the hour. Our play by David Sedaris and the Pine Tree Gang, exclusively here on Your Radio Playhouse radio program.

Coming up next, in our little cavalcade of Christmas stories, is a story from Beau O'Riley. Beau's a local playwright and musician, longtime member of the band Maestro Subgum and the Whole. And Christmas brings up such different feelings and memories for each person. His story is a story from his childhood living outside Chicago.

Beau O'reilly

I lost my entire thumbnail closing a classroom window.

Ira Glass

I'm just going to start that again. We're having a cuing problem here. You can see that we are spooked by the Ghost of Christmas Present here in this program so far. It's been such a nerve wracking thing getting the program on the air, with everybody going away for the holidays, and us wanting to make the show extra special with all sorts of extra special new pieces. So we're just going to move back. You see, we're just going to have Ghost of Christmas Past here. We just going to move back into past about a minute ago and try that again.

Beau O'reilly

Two weeks before Christmas in 1966, I lost my entire thumbnail closing a classroom window as part of the Sister Edwardine seventh graders helped the school close their windows program. I'd been assigned to close them all up every day. And they were huge, swinging, picture-window type windows that demanded a seventh graders brooding aggressiveness to shut them firmly.

It was warm that day, unseasonable, and all the windows were wide open. And the other boy just let fly, really slamming it. I was dreaming out the window when the metal rim of it caught the top of my thumbnail, and the whole nail just sprang off. There was blood and nerve endings skit-scatting out of my thumb, hot pain.

A week later, I was back on the playground, my thumb bound in a plastic splint. Wrapped in so much gauze that it, the thumb, looked like an upside down bowling pin. I was five nine and a half in 1966 and built like a garden hose that had been used so many times that it has lost all sense of its rubbery toughness, its definition, and hangs like a limp spiral. My body was like that, pale skin wrapped around awkward bones.

And that body had reached its full man-height at the end of the six grade. It would never grow another inch. This growth spurt had prompted a new attention on the playground. Suddenly, I might be of some use. Basketball was no joke on the playgrounds of my midwestern-boy-1966-hood. Basketball was the most excellent, athletically rational of games and, suddenly, I was eligible because of a quirk of genetics but still eligible.

Previously, my childhood had laid itself out as one continuous torture chamber of belly clenching, flush producing fear, when it came to anything like running, jumping, or slamming. And now here I was, under the basket, pounding my dribble with my left hand, the bowling pin thumb riding the ball, a stiff little Napoleon rolling into battle.

John Crescent was six two. He was almost fifteen, old for our class, and the shadow of blue whiskers edged his face. He was on the other team. And I had never noticed him before, except once, when dreaming out of Sister Edwardine's classroom window. John Crescent leaving school early for some reason, stopping at the edge of the parking lot to light a cigarette while still on school property. It was a bold enough move that I noted him and noted it.

And white trash is what I noted. Where I got that phrase, I don't know. My parents, in 1966, were careful Kennedy liberals. And white trash was way too denigrating a phrase for me to have heard at home. But the phrase hung way back in my cultural awareness, shadows of trailer parks, and country music, and Brylcreem, and Twinkies three meals a day. John Crescent had all this about him. He spoke with a heavy, Tennessee, sweet-slur to his vowels. His teeth were dark and mossy. And right now, he was coming straight at me under the basket, his eyes wide after the basketball that I was pounding.

I was an odd boy back then. And the meaner kids all called me odd-head. And, I think, in that moment, I was thinking about white trash culture. My odd head cocked at an angle as I considered all of white trash culture. Its angles. Did white trash families spend their Sundays like professional wrestlers, tearing up the living room? Did they chew tobacco before they reached puberty? I was thinking these thoughts and not at all protecting the basketball when John Crescent hit me with his whole body and the ball spurted away. And I hit the pavement.

Now, I have a tendency to go all odd-headed and get day-dreamy in the midst of violence. And this dreamy quality has gotten me through more than my share of playground fights. I float back up once I get knocked down. And I floated back up this time, in time to take a return pass and to have John Crescent slam me with this whole body a second time. But this time I didn't fall. I floated to a new spot on the court, and I held onto the ball.

And John Crescent, just caught in surprise, and shoved me halfway across the lot. But when I rose up, still dreaming, and fired a shot over John Crescent's head, making the basket, he stopped. And then John Crescent grabbed my thumb. He grabbed it hard. It still waved like an imp with a baton above my hand. And John Crescent grabbed that nailless thumb, and he squeezed it too. And the pain went up my spine, and I popped my eyes open. John Crescent cawed, and he squeezed again. And now, I didn't know John Crescent before this. I had never had a conversation with him. And here he was squeezing my poor nerve-exposed thumb, like it was the trigger and I was the gun.

I hit him with my right hand. A clumsy punch that missed his chin and glanced his Adam's apple. John Crescent gulped and he stepped back. And I hit him again, this time, somewhere near the chest, with my left hand. The little Napoleon digit crying out with more pain that made my spine jump for revenge. I don't know how long I kept hitting him. Long enough for all the other playground boys to surround the two of us, to comment on my lack of boxing skills.

And even as I was hitting John Crescent, my odd-head cocked back for a better view of the scene. I was watching the other boys watching me. I'd grown up with most of them. I'd been beaten up by most of them. I'd been mocked and teased without remorse by most of them. They weren't my friends. I happened to have a growth spurt in time for basketball season. They didn't care about me. And yet their faces all hoped and wanted, needed me, to beat on John Crescent, white trash John Crescent, who was more of an outsider than odd-headed me.

I hit him again anyway. And Jon Crescent was reluctant to hit me back. He kept pushing me away with this long basketball arms and not throwing any punches of his own. We were interrupted, finally, by Sister Edwardine. Her sharp caws of Stop it, stop it now!" broke the boys apart. I turned my head, so as to see her coming. She was short, full beaked in the nose, and bird-like. And I pictured her cawing above our heads, in my own odd head.

And then John Crescent, who'd avoided hitting me back as long as everyone was watching, hit me as hard as he could. And I took the punch full in the face. It landed solidly on my left cheekbone. And I saw the Aurora Borealis, my head ringing like a fire drill. And as I landed on the pavement, I thought in my odd-headed way, of all the primitive, prehistoric men who went gaga in wonder at the first sight of the Northern Lights in a full sky. And then I hit the pavement, and I passed out.

The weather finally went hard cold the night before Christmas Eve. The lake froze solid. And I woke up to the early quiet, intending to go out and pick up the family Christmas tree. Our family having long ago figured out that a Christmas tree bought on the last day meant a substantial savings. Why I went alone that year, I don't remember. Usually, I would have gone with my multitude of brothers and sisters. But I did go alone, crossing the frozen lake. It was very cold. The wind like a wraith sucked all the heat from my body, before I reached the lot where the almost perfect seven-foot, short-needled pine trees still could be found.

It was early still. And I had to knock and wake the trailer on the lot in order to buy the tree. The Christmas tree man may have been 40, but he looked 60, with three weeks of blue-black whiskers and a morning can of Budweiser. His eyes never looked at me as we negotiated the cost of the tree. But once we agreed, he yelled harshly to his still sleeping son to come out and trim the base of the tree to my specifications.

I was odd-heading and daydreaming about the amount of perfection in a seven-foot, short-needled pine tree, when the son came out, flinching as he walked past the Christmas tree guy. My thumb jumped and ached. He was John Crescent. And John Crescent was the son of the Christmas tree guy. My tree of choice was frozen to the ground. For a couple of minutes, the two of us had to struggle to work it free. And once we had, we stood for a moment in the morning cold.

And I looked at John Crescent, full in the face. His left eye was swollen shut. His lip puffy and still traced with blood. And I had never hit him in the face. He had successfully kept me at a distance. And then I saw him in my own odd head. John Crescent, the Christmas tree guy's son, having to tell the Christmas tree guy about Sister Edwardine throwing him out of school after he'd knocked me out on the playground. And the Christmas tree guy, full of Budweiser, knocking John Crescent around some.

If John Crescent knew who I was, he had given no sign, staring out of his one good eye like I was a car wreck and him the insurance adjuster. But as my head filled with pity for him and remorse over our recent playground battle, he reached out forcefully and grabbed my still-bandaged thumb in his fist. Merry Christmas, he cawed, and he squeezed it. Merry Christmas. I shivered all the way home.

Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church Choir

[SINGING WITH BAND]

Act Two.

Ira Glass

Music from Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side, 82nd and Cornell. It's Your Radio Playhouse. I'm Ira Glass here in WBEZ. More of this very music as our program continues. And a visit to the church, and what they're celebrating this Christmas, later in our show.

Just a couple weeks ago, one of the producers, Delores Wilber, and I went down to the Daniel J. Nellum Youth Services Incorporated. It's a place where teenage boys stay, mostly wards of the state, in fact, entirely wards of the state. And these are kids who can't be placed anywhere else, having trouble getting placed. They all live there. And there are writing classes there. And various arts classes.

The writing classes, right now, are led by a local poet named Quraysh Ali. And Delores Wilber and I went to see what the boys' writing was like, maybe have some of them read on the show. And, in future weeks, we hope to have some of them read on the show.

And one of these we were thinking about when we went down there is maybe they could write about Christmas. Maybe they'd have some experience to write about Christmas. And so when we were there and talking to them and seeing the writing, at one point we did a little writing exercise. And asked, in this writing exercise, for each of the boys to write something about Christmas. And this turned out to be a dreadful mistake. Because most of them had nothing pleasant to say about Christmas.

We went through the usual things that one might ask, just to give people ideas for what you're going to write about, presents you'd gotten, things you'd want to give to somebody else, people you'd want to give something to, things you wanted to tell someone. And had them either write it as a little story or a letter to someone. This on was typical. I'm just going to read this very short essay. This person's said.

The thing I most wanted for Christmas was nothing, because I have nothing. That's why I'm here. The person I like to give something to is no one. I've always wanted to tell you that. I didn't want nothing. And that's OK.

Well Reginald Gibbons is writing about a lot of things right now. But one of them, at least, concerns boys in pretty bad situations. He's the author of Sweetbitter, his most recent novel and other works of poetry. He's the editor of Triquarterly Magazine. And for his most recent book, he is doing some research. He is hanging around a lot at the Juvenile Court Building here in Chicago. And so when we asked him if he wanted to write about Christmas, he decided to set his story there.

Reginald Gibbons

A typical hearing or trial is like a brief, highly organized dance. The public defenders work from a table to one side of the small courtroom, the state's attorneys from another at the other side. The clerk calls the next case. Someone steps out of the closed doors to the waiting area and calls out the name of the minor respondent. The child is brought in. A long moment later, someone's approaching, judge, says an attorney, to placate the impatient man behind the bench. In come three women.

The judge says, his mother here? Yes, judge, the public defender says, indicating one of the women. And who is with mother, the judge asks. Grandmother and aunt, says the attorney. The judge says, aunt, please sit at the back of the courtroom. And the woman goes there without saying a word. The other two wait, also silent.

Like the women who are here to stand with him, the child is black this time. Everyone else in this courtroom is white. Handcuffs have been removed from his wrists at the side door to the courtroom. And, as instructed by the uniformed officer who accompanies him, he stands at the center of the bench before the judge, his hands clasped behind his back and holding, in this case, a jacket, a tube of toothpaste, and a toothbrush.

This legal episode takes only three minutes. The state's attorney speaks. The judge speaks. The public defender speaks. The person of whom they are speaking is not asked to speak and does not speak. Although they have had time in their service to learn somewhat the language that he speaks, they do not speak a language that's intelligible to him.

The public defender meets his client in a small, bare, interview room. The client is 14 years old, and has been held for two weeks, so far, on a very serious charge of violent crime. His hearing, which will take place in two more weeks, will determine whether he will be tried as a juvenile, in this building, and have some chance to straighten out and go free again eventually, or whether he'll be sent to the court at 26th street, to be tried as an adult.

The boy is short, thin, he does not look directly at the public defender, his attorney, who is explaining to him what happened in the courtroom in those three minutes of the judge's time. It was decided that something will be decided. But this explanation too, is in the language of the courts. It does not make sense to the child.

So in response to the explanation, which is that he is going to be given psychological tests, and he needs to be completely honest with the doctor, and then there will be another session before the judge to determine where he will be tried, he says, how long am I going to be in here?

For his crime, if he is convicted as an adult, he will probably remain in prison for the rest of his life. His attorney says, that depends, but it's going to be a while. We have to convince the judge not to send you to 26th street, right? Right. You know how we do that? Oh, man. You know how we do that? You have to do two things. You have to not get written up for anything while you're here. And you have to do well in school upstairs. Are you doing well in school here?

The child is not doing well. And he has already been written up once. People get in his face, he says. He says, he has a temper. All he really wants to know is how long will he be in here.

It could be a long time, his attorney says. How long? Am I going to get out for Christmas? No. No? He doesn't believe this man is an attorney. He says, he wants a good lawyer. He wants to pay $500 and have a good lawyer.

His sleeves are too long. His pants are too big. He shifts in his chair again and again. The small, windowless, brick walled room doesn't fit him either. Is it more important to you, the attorney says, to react when someone is on you, so they know you won't tolerate that, or to not spend the rest of your life in jail? If the judge hears you've got written up, he's going to think that you're not taking this seriously. And if that's what he thinks, then he'll decide you need to go to 26th street, right?

The child looks at every corner of the room and not at his attorney. He fidgets violently in his chair and flings his arms to one side, then the other. His attorney says, someone gets in your face, you have to walk away from it, right? And in school, you need A's and B's, OK? So we can ask one of the teachers to come down to the courtroom and tell the judge that you shouldn't be tried at 26th street as an adult, right?

The child is taken back into the part of the building that is behind locks. After he is gone, his attorney says of him, he isn't going to make it. What he has to do is more than any adult could be reasonably expected to be able to do. And he's only 14.

The day proceeds, more trials, more hearings, the courthouse empties. The worlds, here and everywhere around here, go dark early at this time of year. After rush hour, whether at the known street corners where traffic goes steadily by slowly, or at the quiet corners, where nothing should be happening, the snow falling since late afternoon makes everything quiet. And the street is bright in that strange, nighttime, snow lit way, from the light of a few street lamps, home lights, headlights reflected up off the soft whiteness.

But inside the juvenile detention center, it's still noisy. People are getting in other people's faces, taunting the weak, threatening, messing with their heads. Outside the dirty unbreakable windows, the snow is falling in the night, falling freely, softly, steadily, slowly.

Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church Choir

[SINGING WITH BAND]

Act Three.

Ira Glass

So we wanted a Christmas story for this week that really was more religiously based. And we wanted some Christmas music. And to get both, we decided to visit a church that had something very specific to celebrate this year, and a great choir with which to celebrate it. One of our production staff, Peter Clowney, went to Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church.

Peter Clowney

The church meets in a smallish building on South Cornell, near 82nd and Stony Brook. It's in a middle class neighborhood, but there's some tougher areas nearby. By about 11 o'clock on Sunday morning maybe 50 people are occupying the warm second-floor sanctuary.

They sit in groups, talking about their lives with Christ this week, about other things. And some people are praying. By 11:30, about 100 people are gathered this way. And when the praise and worship starts, music dissolves these little groups into one congregation.

Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church Choir

[SINGING]

Peter Clowney

Reverend Donald Sharp begins the service at noon. He tells people to greet each other in the pews, to meet their neighbors.

Rev. Donald Sharp

As a neighbor. If I want to be forgiven by God, I got to forgive you.

Peter Clowney

I'm struck by how people greet each other here. My father was a minister in Georgia. Our church was half black and half white, but we were all Presbyterian. And, in service, when we greeted each other, we use to do it nervously. We'd brush fingertips and mumble at each other. A lot of us avoided eye contact. Here at Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church, people clasp each other's hands. They look straight in each other's eyes. They say, neighbor. This is a church where no one sits alone.

Calvin Bridges is the choir director. He is an athletic looking man in his mid-30s. He's got this sculpted beard. On Wednesdays, at choir rehearsal, he is all motion. He runs from organ over to the choir. He sings parts for them. He's sweating in this orange t-shirt. But during Sunday service, in his grey suit, he stands behind the organ and directs the choir from there, with his singing and by punching up the beat on the organ.

Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church Choir

[SINGING]

Peter Clowney

And the choir this morning is about 20 people, maybe five teenage boys who don't seem to be into it, a few young women who are, a couple men over 30. but mostly it's women in their 30s and 40s. They seem really to get along. The closest I saw them come to disagreeing was after rehearsal Wednesday night. Traci Kiraten, one of choir members, told the group about the dance school that she's starting with her mom and sister. They're going to be teaching tap and jazz, maybe some aerobics, and there is also going to be martial arts. Choir director Bridges is an ordained minister, he's a very devout man. He puller her aside and told her, martial arts could be an instrument of Satan. They came to an understanding.

Traci Kiraten

Martial arts does have a background with, I think, it's the Far East religions like Buddhism. I'm glad that he asked that question. But my response to him was that the teacher, I'm not the teacher, but the teacher that does teach the martial art classes, he has a Christian background. And he is a ordained minister.

Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church Choir

[SINGING]

Peter Clowney

At this church they don't make a big deal out of Christmas. There are no real decorations around. Maybe two Christmas songs in their entire morning service. And when I asked people about it, they told me, they celebrate Christ year round. So why should Christmas be any different.

Angela Cook

I give God praise whether it be Christmas, Easter. I just don't take one day out of the year to celebrate. I celebrate all the time. Hallelujah, because God is good. Yes he is. He's good. I'm getting excited.

Peter Clowney

That's Angela Cook, a member of the choir for 25 years. She's one of the soloists.

Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church Choir

[ANGELA COOK SINGING WITH BAND AND CHOIR]

Peter Clowney

4:30, we're back at the church for the mortgage burn. First, everyone takes battery powered candles and marches around the building.

Rev. Donald Sharp

[SINGING ] We've come this far by faith. Leaning on the Lord. Trusting in his holy word.

Peter Clowney

Reverend Sharp founded this church 31 years ago, with 12 people. Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church now has 500 members, too many for this building. And last year, Reverend Sharp made a decision. He told his congregation, look, we're going to pay $90,000 left on our mortgage. Not by the year 2004, like we're supposed to, but now. Because once we've done that, we can start building. We can build a place that can hold all of us.

A year later, even Reverend Sharp is surprised that they did it.

Rev. Donald Sharp

When we began last year to make a determination that we were going to engage in this campaign, I had to be very honest with you, I had some serious doubts. Not about God, but about you. Amen. I'm might as well, might as well be honest with you.

Peter Clowney

As of last Sunday, Faith Tabernacle has raised $101,000. That's an incredible amount given how many people they are, and what people there make. It comes out to about $2,000 per person, on top of tithing, on top of the mission funds that they give.

Rev. Donald Sharp

And in a year's time, we didn't sell not one chicken, didn't sell not one banquet ticket, didn't sell anything. I could stand here and tell you the story as how we used to believe in selling dinners, banquets. And how folks would be mad at each other around here. Because you didn't buy no ticket from me, I ain't going to buy no ticket from you. All right. And how we used to have banquets and used to have ticket selling. And somehow the tickets and the money didn't come out right.

Peter Clowney

Anyone who's been part of a church, knows that no big moment in a church's life is going to pass without dozens of people speaking, and without a service that goes on perhaps a bit too long. By about 7:30 people are fidgeting. Teenagers in the back slump in the pews. But then, finally, the moment arrives. 20 or so leaders of the church gather at the pulpit, their backs to the congregation. They lay the mortgage in an alter that appears to be covered with tinfoil. It burns surprisingly quickly with a tiny wisp of smoke, while some people sing, burn, out loud.

Christmas, in a certain sense, is about tomorrow. It's about hope. The child was is just born in the darkness of winter. He is bringing light with him. It's the perfect moment for a group of people who've stood with each other for 30 years to look to the future, to begin to build.

Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church Choir

[SINGING REPETION OF THANK YOU]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, thank you this evening.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

Today's show was produced by Nancy Updike and myself, with Alix Spiegel, Peter Clowney, and Delores Wilber. Contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margie Rochlin and Paul Tough. We broadcast from WBEZ Chicago.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

The choir director, Calvin Bridges does have a record coming out, a CD, of the Chicago Praise Ensemble, some people from the church and some other people, from their recent tours in Paris and Scandinavia. Look for that.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS CONT.] I'm Ira Glass. See you next week.

Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church Choir

[SINGING]