Joe’s Diner: A True Santa Story
Telluride local Michael Estwanik founded and ran the dearly departed American Songbook series, concerts featuring top performers from Broadway and cabaret, who put on shows that never failed to make our hearts sing. As should Michael’s charming story which suggests Christmas (and Santa) are states of mind that endure throughout the year. To which thought you may reply either “egaads” or “right on.” Read on…
Joe’s Diner in the village of Lee, Massachusetts, is legendary. It was the setting for Norman Rockwell’s famous 1958 Saturday Evening Post cover illustration, “The Runaway.” A very young boy is sitting on a stool at Joe’s Diner with his little red bandana/knapsack on a stick at his feet. On the stool next to him is a very inquisitive, concerned policeman. Leaning across the counter, equally as curious and caring as the cop, was Joe himself.
A few years ago I was up in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts for my annual week of world-class culture. My friends, Marti and Henry, were visiting from Louisville and it was their very first time in the Berkshires. I was hoping it would live up to their expectations. We were looking forward to a table at Joe’s Diner for dinner. The $6.99 meatloaf and $7.99 turkey specials were on the blackboard. We only had an hour to eat before heading over to the Berkshire Theatre Festival to see Noel Coward in Two Keys.
The four tables were already taken by some locals, so we sat at the counter. Why not. Stools are really the only place one should sit at a diner anyway. A lovely high school student, Becky, with chartreuse/fuchsia hair and a pierced nose was our waitress. I sat down next to two little boys and their dad whom I noticed had only one arm. Our conversation began by me asking the youngest boy sipping on his straw, “What flavor is your milkshake?” “Vanilla,” he replied smiling yet barely lifting his mouth off the straw. “Any good?” I asked. Enthusiastic nods of “Yeah! Are you kidding?!!!” “Oh, vanilla is the best flavor in the whole wide world” I agreed. (It’s true.) He nodded without missing a sip.
This led to a nice, warm exchange between Marti, Henry, me, and our new friends. Ron, the Dad, was divorced and had his boys out for an evening on the town. The older boy, seated next to Dad, was officially named Ronald III, but everyone called him “Trip” (as in Triple). I told them I loved to travel so I thought that Trip was a very cool name. The younger boy with the milkshake was Gabriel. And yes he was an angel. I have no children of my own, but I am crazy about all kids. I have a special talent somehow for guessing their ages and school grades. I batted 100% with Gabriel and Trip as well. I really impressed them with that. When I told them I lived in New York City, they lit up like Christmas trees. “Really? Really?” Dad had recently taken them to a Yankees game. Against the Dodgers. They lost but we all agreed the Yankees were still a great team.
I asked who their teachers were last year. Mrs. McDonnell was Trip’s first grade teacher. “Oh, she’s tough, but you did great, right?” I asked. “Yes sir, straight A’s except one B+.” Gabe had Mr. Sanders for kindergarten. “Well, they don’t come any better than him,” I told him. They wondered how I could know their teachers since I lived in New York City. “Oh, I just do.” Of course I don’t but I learned this way of engaging kids in conversation from Rosie O’Donnell whenever she talked with children in her TV audience. Makes them feel that grownups really do care about them. And their education.
After about 20 minutes, it was time for them to leave. They were headed for the new “Batman” movie. I almost cautioned them not to go. A week ago, I saw about an hour of it but had to leave because it was so dark, the violence was non-stop, and I couldn’t follow the plot. What chance did Gabriel and Trip have? But it was their night with Dad, so I kept it zipped.
As they started to leave Trip’s face took on a very curious expression. As if he has just discovered something important. He tugged on his Dad’s one shirt sleeve and said, “Daddy,…I think he’s Santa.” “Me too, Daddy. He must be Santa Claus to know all that stuff about us!” chimed in Gabriel. I was so thrilled that I actually felt a little woozy. “Do you really fly?” “Well, of course,” I replied struggling to keep it together. “How do the reindeers know how to fly?” “Because they want to,” I said. “They know that little boys like you need them to deliver all your Christmas presents. And they practice. If you practice hard you can do anything you want to, you know.” Marti, Henry, and Becky were loving all of this. They reminded the boys to be sure and put out chocolate chip cookies and milk for me. And carrots for my reindeer, of course.
They were almost out the door when Gabriel turned back and looked at my feet. I was wearing powder blue loafers from the island of Capri. “Wait a minute. Those aren’t Santa’s shoes. He wears big black boots.” “Well, yes,” I explained, “but only when I am working in my shop at the North Pole and when I travel at Christmas time. I’m on vacation in the Berkshires – where you lucky boys get to live every single day.”
Whew – fast thinking. They bought it. And why not, everyone is a Santa Claus after all.
After they were out the door, I waved goodbye and turned to Marti and Henry who were grinning from ear to ear. I exclaimed, “Wow – some guys might have rather been called Batman, or Spiderman, Superman, or Green Lantern, or any of the other super heroes. But I was just called Santa.”
I never learned how Daddy lost his arm. Or why the divorce happened. Or how often he got to see them. But I guess that wasn’t so important after all. In those twenty minutes or so, quite by accident, I helped two little boys feel extra happy to be out with their Daddy for the evening.
Who says Christmas only comes once a year?
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