“Look at that, an empty table,” Richie said to me as we walked in, pointing me towards a far corner of the raised dining room that adjoined the bar.
“Great,” I told him. “Go ahead and grab it while I get a pitcher.”
Ordering our beer and an appetizer to justify taking the space in the dining area, I also sprang for a couple of shots of whiskey to make some boilermakers.
That seemed a good way to toast in Christmas morning. December 24, 1971: I was home on leave from the Navy and Richie and I decided early in the evening to visit Patrick’s Pub, the local pub in Little Neck, the place where my dad bought me my first legal beer only a year before and the place I would spend many nights and early evenings over the decade to come.
You usually needed a reservation to get in to Patrick’s on a holiday night, but since it was only a bit after 10 at night when we left his place and midnight mass hadn’t begun yet, we took a chance on getting a table. With money in our wallets and hope in our hearts, Richie and I drove over and found that our luck held out.
I opted to go in uniform that night. I still ran into veterans at Patrick’s, and being in uniform proved a good way to sometimes score free drinks while there, swapping stories. The older guys had the better and livelier ones; I hadn’t been in long enough to gather my own.
Not long after midnight, we—along with everyone else in the back room—heard a booming, boisterous “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merr-r-ry Christmas, everyone!”
There, in the side door that led to the parking area, Santa stood in all his glory. The outfit and beard were perfect, but his basso voice was the real attention-getter. Santa wended his way to the first table, sat down between two couples, and started singing “Jingle Bells.” Everyone in the place joined in while Santa sat there conducting the chorus with a mug of beer he’d grabbed off the table.
The tune over and all applauding, St. Nick now moved to another table and started in on “Oh, Christmas Tree,” refilling his empty mug from that pitcher of beer. At times, St. Nick forgot some of the words but filled those gaps by loudly belting out “Da-Dadada-Da-Dadada” followed by “Da-Dadadada-Dada!”
That carol done, he stood and moved to the next table. Once there, he started in with “Silent Night.” Of course, now everyone quieted down to reverently sing when I noticed that Santa was refilling his mug from their pitcher.
I nudged my friend and pointed.
“Santa’s getting tanked on everyone else’s beer. I think I wore the wrong outfit tonight.”
As the night went on, we noticed he never hit any table that didn’t have both an obvious couple and a fairly full pitcher within reach. Santa spent time with a different group, leading them in song while siphoning—at times spilling—the contents of their pitcher into his own glass.
Later the crowd thinned out, leaving behind the last few stragglers, including Richie and myself, and one snoring Santa. The bartender came over to wake him. “Come on, Santa. Time to get back to the North Pole and the wife.” He removed the hat and wraparound beard, then stood back.
“Anyone know this fellow?”
None of us still there recognized the guy now collapsed against the side of a dining room bench. The bartender eventually called a cab after checking his wallet for a name and address. With daybreak approaching, the rest of us left, and I trudged home to face the daunting task of trying to wrap presents under the influence.
I still don’t know how Santa does it.