Best of Breslin: A Night to Be Jolly
The legendary reporter explores the world of those missing out on the holiday cheer.
Any place with a bar in it yesterday was packed. They were shaking hands and kissing each other and then taking a drink whether they wanted one or not because everybody drinks before he goes home on Christmas Eve.
Ida Ryan was catching them on the other end, when they came off the train at the station at Broadway and 31st Street, out in Astoria.
She sat and watched them as they came down the stairs, walking quickly, the whisky showing in their faces, saying, “Merry Christmas,” and, “Have a good holiday,” to each other as they started for home.
One of them came up to the change window, a dollar bill in the hand under the packages.
“Could I get change for the bus?” he said.
Ida took the bill and pushed silver through the window and the hand fumbled from under the packages and picked it up.
“You know, this must be an awful tough night for you to work,” the guy said, because he thought that was good to say to somebody working on Christmas Eve.
“Uh huh,” Ida said. “Merry Christmas.”
She said it automatically, but she was looking down, arranging her change and tokens. It was Christmas for everybody else last night, but to Ida Ryan it was just an eight-hour shift in a change booth.
Her husband, Jimmy Ryan, is in a cell in Attica State Prison. Her son, James Jr., is eighteen and is in the narcotics ward at Manhattan General Hospital. The boy was in grammar school, with report cards that showed honor marks, when the father was sent away in 1957. From then on, the boy slipped in school, and a year ago he came home with his eyes glazed from taking goofballs. Nobody could get him off the habit.
The daughter, Helen, is twelve and Ida has her living with a sister on Long Island now because she can’t do much for her at home. A couple of years ago Helen began to have trouble hearing out of the right ear. The condition persisted until the ear went dead altogether. Then the left ear began to go. The doctors look at the ears and say nothing can be done.
“What am I going to do?” Ida said. “Something happens and I guess everybody has to pay for it. Now I have my father down. He’s a job all by himself.”
“The father? What happened to him?”
“He lost a leg a year ago. Then he had a stroke, and now he’s just a patient in bed. He’s another patient. That’s all we have is patients.”
Jimmy Ryan was a first-grade detective in New York. In 1957 he was sentenced to 7½ to 15 years and 2½ to 5 years for burglaries and holdups. He was also hit with a 4-year federal sentence for handling counterfeit money. He was no bargain when they put him away. Gambling had him over his head with money, and he took his gun and instead of protecting people with it he turned it on them. He knew it better than anybody else when he went away: he rated everything he got.
Then, a year ago, Ida Ryan came into the visiting room at Attica and she spoke over a table to her husband and told him that his son was on junk.
“I’ll get him, I’ll chain him to the bed,” Jimmy said. “Let me get my hands on this kid.”
“You can’t,” Ida said. “That’s the trouble. You can’t do a thing to him. You’re here and he’s on the street.”
Then a guard stepped up and pounded his club on the table. “Time’s up,” the guard said.
He was locked in his cell for the night at 3:45 p.m. yesterday, just a few minutes after Ida started work in the change booth and all the people came down the stairs with their packages and the whisky in them and saying, “Merry Christmas” to each other.
The stories today are all about Tiny Tim and fat men seeing hungry faces in the windows and stepping out to give them something to eat, and there always is warmth and hope in them, which is why they are fables you tell at Christmas.
She smiled. “Hope, what kind of hope have I got? He’s got years to go and his son and daughter are falling into pieces. He comes up for parole in November; if he could get paroled he could start on the federal sentence. But he may not even get paroled this time. I don’t know. I just wish I could see a little light. If somebody would come and tell me tonight that I have a chance, that I can see some light, then it would be different. I could hope. Now I just have to sit here and make change.”
At a few minutes before midnight somebody came to relieve her and she walked out of the booth and went downstairs to the street and walked up to Saint Rita’s for midnight mass.
“I have to make it,” she said. “I have more things to talk about in there than anybody else.”