My favorite Christmas story is about swindlers, who are ten years
old, as recounted by one who grew up to be a famous novelist. |
On December 4, 1949, the Chicago Sunday Tribune published Merry Christmas, Mr. Mark, a remembrance by Nelson Algren. A gambler and drinker, Algren had just written The Man With the Golden Arm, compassionately telling the story of a Chicago morphine addict. That year he'd won the National Book Award, continued his affair with Simone de Beauvoir, and even met Jean-Paul Sartre.
But as the year ended, the 40-year-old novelist set down his memories of being a young boy braving the December snow of 71st Street to sell the Saturday Evening Blade at the intersection by the cemetery.
"We'd worked up any number of swindles there..."
"Sometimes, if the chump didn't have anything smaller than a two-bit piece, we'd duck into the saloon for change — and duck out the Ladies Entrance. Merry Christmas, Mr. Mark."
And other swindles involved Chicago's famous wooden trolleys making their final stop by a nearby saloon.
"There was almost always some fool on the rear platform waiting for the Blade to see who'd gotten killed today. We'd time it so as to hand him those blood-red headlines just as the trolley began its creaking jaunt west toward Halsted — the hustle then was to stumble alongside the car trying to reach the fool's change hand but never quite reaching it. That was no small stunt, the shape that trolley was in, even for a 10- year-old. Sometimes you'd have to have a coughing spell to slow you up.
Once one kid pulled that coughing routine and the mark got off the car and came back for his change, cough or no cough. He didn't care if the kid had TB. Some mark.
But while shaking down customers, the news boys discovered they could incorporate the end-of-the-year holiday.
Around Christmastime the paper guys had cards printed and sold them to us little paper guys for a nickel apiece. They read something like this:
Christmas comes but once a year
When it comes it brings good cheer
So open your heart without a tear
And remember the newsie standing here.
That got them, every time. Especially if there was a light fall of snow. And the swindle in the card routine was this: After he'd paid for the verse and would be thinking he owned it, you'd have to tell him no, it was your only card, you just wanted him to see the sentiment on it, it had cost you a nickel, so please mister could you have it back?
When he was 24, sixteen years before writing the essay, Algren served five months in jail for stealing a typewriter. Some think the incident began his lifelong identification with con men, outsiders, and America's unacknowledged underclass. But his muckraking prose wasn't always welcomed, and his career declined over the years to come. Algren was isolated and self-isolating, according to publisher Daniel Simon, who wrote that over the decades the writer lost his familiar ebullience.
When he died they named a street in Chicago after him — and then after complaints from the neighborhood, changed it back. Within five years, every word he'd written fell out of print.
But eight years earlier, at the age of 64 — Nelson assembled a final collection of his life's works called The Last Carousel. It had been 24 years since he'd written "Merry Christmas, Mr. Mark," but he made sure it was included.
Search Google for its title today, and you'll find just three matches (though Google's Book Search includes the story in its entirety). In its final paragraphs, the hard-boiled novelist acknowledged the possibility that somewhere out there, some genuine compassion might just be waiting.That was thirty Chicago Christmases and Lord-Knows-How-Many Swindles ago. That saloon is long gone, whole populations have been buried in that cemetery, and the Toonerville Trolley is now a street-car bus. But that big mark of a Santa still keeps coming around, year after year.
It begins to look to me like he must be in on some fast hustle himself. Maybe it's a kickback on those toys he pushes. Maybe he got something on somebody.
Maybe he knows something we don't know.