The boy was about 11 or 12 as my memory recalls. Time has pushed back his exact age to the point where I can only make an educated guess. He lived in Bushwick, a section of Brooklyn known for some very good Spanish restaurants, a small Italian section with a particular coffee shop that made a mean espresso and cappuccino, as well as some incredible pastries. Bushwick was also known for the squalor in which too many of its residents lived. Such was this boy's situation.
It was around the holidays in 1995. A medic I worked with had become involved in the Santa's Workshop project with the Post Office. You've probably heard of this. Kids write letters to Santa at the North Pole, the P.O. collects the letters, and then volunteers take them and try to grant the wishes of the kids who wrote them. the letters range from the predictable to the heartbreaking. Kids who want toys, to kids who want their mom or dad to have a job. My co-worker brought in the letters, and let us choose which ones we wanted. For some reason, this one kid's letter hit me.
It seemed like a simple and predictable request. The kid wanted a Nintendo Game Boy, something that was all the rage at the time. What struck me though, was the neatness of the handwriting. it wasn't the usual kid scrawl. Something told me that this kid paid attention in school. I couldn't say what it was exactly, just intuition. I was the end of the letter though that raised my eyebrows a bit: "My mom can't afford presents this year." I decided that this was the kid I wanted to help out.
I bought the Game Boy after much scouring, as he had a specific type in mind. it was such a hot item that year, it was almost impossible to find, and as the Web was just in its infancy, Amazon.com was not an option. I finally found the one he was hoping for, and wrapped it up along with a card from "Santa." While I would deliver it personally, I would not be telling him it was from me, though I am sure his mom would know it was me that bought it. Dad it seemed, was not in the picture, not an uncommon occurrence in this area of Brooklyn, where the family unit was often supplanted, or replaced entirely by gangs. I don't know where this kid stood in relation to that, but for now it seemed as though he was still on the straight and narrow, or at least I hoped so.
I got out of work a little late on that night in December. Don't ask the exact date, as I can't remember it. Driving to Bushwick was pretty much out of the way for me on my usual route home. I knew the street where the kid lived, having responded into this neighborhood on a regular basis. I parked the car in front of the brownstone building that had stood there for probably a century. The building was a memory vault. One could imagine hoards of kids back in the Depression playing stickball in the street outside of its entrance, or stoopball on its steps. Milkmen delivered their product to the apartments, when milk came in glass bottles, and you needed to skim the cream off the top of it. The building had seen better days. Now, it looked far more worn, and there was evidence that its upkeep was not something the current owner was overly concerned with.
The current owner installed an intercom system, and I rang the apartment buzzer that had the last name of the boy on it. A woman's voice answered, a heavy Hispanic accent with traces of suspicion. I just said "EMS," as anything else might have resulted in my not being let in. I was in uniform, as I didn't always change in the locker room, but wore my uniform home so I could wash it along with the others, especially if it was the last day of the work week.
I walked up to the second floor where the boy's apartment was, knocked on the door. I could see the inside cover of the peephole in the door sliding back, then the clacking sound of a police-style "Fox lock" being unbolted. The door opened a crack, and a thin Hispanic woman peered out. I introduced myself, and asked if she remembered her son writing to Santa at the North Pole. A bright smile then came over this face that appeared to have known nothing but hardship and sorrow and in mildly broken English, she told me she did. I told her, whispering as I didn't want her son to hear, that I had the Game Boy, and asked if I could give it to him? she called his name, and out of a back room came this slightly pudgy, animated boy.
"I understand, " I said without telling him my name, "that you made a request of Santa for a specific present."
Slightly bewildered, not quite sure of what I was getting at, he shook his head and said, "Yeah."
"Well, Santa has instructed me to give this to you, but not to open it until Christmastime."
The look on his face was only surpassed by the quiet "Oh wow" that came out in his astonishment. He thanked me, along with his mom, and I left, Lone Ranger-like, with my work there done.
Now, you may be wondering why I am relating a holiday story with almost three months to go until then.
A friend lent me the book, "Different Seasons," by Stephen King. In it is the novella "Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption," which the movie "The Shawshank Redemption" was based on. I had only seen the movie in bits and pieces, and wanted to read the novella first. I always enjoyed most of King's work, but enjoyed his non-scary pieces even better. This was no exception. "Shawshank" is a masterful story of the human spirit, and how kindness in the most terrible of circumstances is often repaid in ways we don't always anticipate. Such was what happened with the boy and the Nintendo.
In the novella, Andy Dufrense was in a physical prison as well as a mental one, and learned to break free of both. Such was the same in many ways for me while working in Brooklyn. While I could go home at night to the comfortable surroundings of my Westchester apartment, mentally I carried around Brooklyn at all times. Giving that kid the Nintendo was one way of dealing with that, and hopefully rendering a kindness at the same time. Dufrense escaped his insanity when he knew the time was now or never, and I escaped from the insanity that I found myself in as well.
I only hope the screws don't find out about me.
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