When I was young, I was sent to the corner to buy newspapers from Big John. This was a daily thing. When my brother went to college, the task was passed down to me. I was nine years old.
Hands like plates, arms of stone, and a back as wide as a wall, you couldn’t help but flinch a little when he moved from left to right. As kind as he was strong, his smile accompanied graceful but short steps of caution. Some mornings, mostly during the summer, I would watch him get off the bus and walk carefully to his post, a newspaper stand on the corner of Granville and Clark, where he would wait for the stacks of newspapers to be delivered. The Tribune, The Sun Times, and The Daily News we ordered accordingly in the front of a five by five shack, about six feet tall. Peeling white paint turning to grey over the years of weather, soot and steam, John sat on his stool, his frame barely fit into this casing. All day he stayed, waiting for the daily customers. I never tried to guess his age. I just knew he was kind and much older than me.
And I knew he was blind.
I didn't have many friends. So when I went to get the paper, I’d just sit with John at the stand. I’d be quiet. Sometimes I’d ask John questions. Mostly, though, I’d keep John company. He was easy to sit with, and he didn’t mind me being there. I think he had a sense that I was not only very young but that I just wanted to keep him company. He didn’t ask why, but he let me be with him.I didn’t speak much, just a question or two, and usually stayed for no more than a half hour. I never risked being a pest, and I felt special to be with him.
People watched out for John. They’d be careful to take the paper they needed, give him the correct change, and make sure that they counted out the bills indicating the proper value of each one, placing them in John’s hand. They would introduce themselves to John in their first encounter with him, and some would do it daily until John remembered who they were from their voice. John said, “Sometimes, I can hear their steps and know who’s who, particularly if it’s in the night. But in the morning, I need to hear their voice to know who they are. Everybody is in a hurry.”
I never asked him if he was married, and I don’t remember a wedding ring. I never saw him eat, drink, or go to the bathroom. In my memory, John just sat quietly, with a few words for me when I stayed. Sometimes a transistor radio played music, sometimes the news or a ballgame. But mostly, I remember the quiet. This was what John was to me.
December can get cold in Chicago. People slow down their pace, but move quickly to get their paper. “They don’t want to stand for too long,” John would say, “so I get the change ready. Dollars and quarters have to pass fast, especially when that wind picks up.”
I followed my daily afternoon assignment to get the “red streak,” the evening edition of the Chicago Daily News. It was the twenty third of December. I remember because I had to sing at midnight mass the next day, and knew I’d miss John that night and the next.
As I walked I saw lights from the corner, and for a minute I panicked. When you're raised in the city, the faded twinkle of red over the descending darkness makes you think of an ambulance. As the anxiety rose to my throat, my feet crushed the snow behind me as I ran toward the corner.
When I got closer, I saw the red light. And a green, blue and yellow one right next to it. John had a string of lights hanging loosely from the top of the shack. “Can you see them?,” John asked. I said I could, that from down the street I only could see the red light. But I said they looked nice.
“I hung them this morning. I asked the daytime paper people to help me. I’ve got a little battery in here. The lights sometimes stay on for a few days, or so.”
John handed me the paper, and I said again that I really liked the lights, and that it made the shack look nice. I knew at that moment that I needed to be quiet. And I just stood there, looking at the lights. I didn’t wan to leave, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
“Bet you wonder why I hangs them lights.” I nodded my head, then quickly said, “Yes, sir, I guess so,” realizing that he couldn’t see my head move.
“Well,” John said slowly, as he adjusted his truck tire frame on the stool behind the papers, “I can tell when it’s Christmas. I mean, I know from the radio. I know from the sound of the music from the cars that pass at night. The radio men speak of Christmas getting closer, and I’m here with the papers on Christmas day, so I know about when the lights should get up there. I keep a string with me all year long, just to put it up before the big day.”
It’s just one string. Maybe about fifteen lights or so. They lights aren’t hung. They look more like they’re thrown, over three nails i’d never noticed sticking out from the eves of the roof.
“I’ve been told that lights have something to do with Christmas,” John said, pointing a hammer handled sized finger toward the roof of his shelter. “I can’t sees them. But I know what they looks like. My momma told me about the lights when we’d go to church on Sunday. She loved lights. All year long, my momma would tell me about lights. She’d tell me about the lights from the windows of houses on summer nights, lights of the stars that fill the sky, and the lights on the cars and the street lamps.”
“I always thought,” John said, shifting his weight on his stool, “from what I could gather, that lights were something that showed you the way. The stars let you know where you were. The cars told you where they were.”
“Well, I thought the Christmas lights were there to tell you where you were supposed to be.”
“You know,” he said, with a smile, “where our hearts should be. Where are thoughts should be. And where we’re supposed to be, to sit with the one’s we love.”
I’d never heard John talk this much. I was still and just listened.
“No, I can’t see the lights. Like I said, I’ve been told they have something to do with Christmas. That’s fine.”
“But if they are there to show us the way to a better life, a more peaceful way of living, then I’m all for it. We need this guidance. Sometimes we have to be shown where love is. And maybe this little string helps that along.”
“That’s why they’re there. That’s why I hangs them.”
I got the paper tucked under my arm.
“Merry Christmas, youngin” John said.
And as I walked back toward my apartment, I looked at the windows of the houses and the apartments on the way back home.
As I saw the Christmas lights in my window, I knew why they were there.
They lit the way of caring. They brought me back home, reminders of all the good within the season.
The lights. They show you the way. Back to your heart, within every gesture of kindness and charity, delivering us to that “something” to do with Christmas, inside us all, every day.
Merry Christmas, John.