As I hurried to Starbucks this afternoon, a bearded, shivering twenty-something with a clipboard, the store's needy sentinel du jour, stopped me and asked if I had a minute to talk about the ASPCA. I lied. I told him I'd talked to someone else from the organization a few days earlier. He reluctantly let me pass — though a prize pit bull fighter wouldn't have been able to stop me — and I burst through the familiar doors of my haunt. Every table inside was full, but the caffeinated, chaotic clamor I'm used to had been replaced by quiet, tinny Christmas music. The customers, most of them alone, sat with their coffee, laptops and books. Kept to themselves. The usual crowd of impossibly thin, fashionable parents and their rosy-cheeked, dolled-up children was nowhere to be found. A frustrating revelation, as my trips to Starbucks are part of my attempts to keep the baby cravings at bay for as long as possible. Short of children to goo-goo-ga-ga at, I ordered my drink, hummed along with the holiday standards on the sound system and stood at the condiment bar, checking the clock on my BlackBerry obsessively. My friend was three minutes late. We had places to be. Important places.
She finally showed up, brushing off the ASPCA as she rushed breathlessly inside; we waited in line for her drink then hurried back out the door, past the clipboards and up the street toward the El. We had 12 minutes to spare. Six feet tall in my Frye boots and even tougher to miss in my bright yellow peacoat, I stopped a line of traffic as I crossed the street to the station. Crosswalks be damned. Attention, passengers. An inbound train toward the Loop will be arriving shortly. Oh, Jesus. And my friend's transit card was empty. No time. I beeped her through with my card, and we ran up the escalator to a packed platform.
Then I saw where all the Starbucks parents and their perfect progeny had gone: They'd fled the cafe in droves for the same train station, children carrying lukewarm hot chocolates in tiny mittened hands. The comforting frenzy had simply moved through the cold en masse. One train passed. We stayed behind with the crush of families. This was not our train. Our train was coming at 3:20, just a few short minutes away. Headlights appeared in the distance. Then the screaming started. "The Santa! Train! Is! COMING!!! SANTA'S COMING!!!"
My pulse quickened; I looked to my friend expectantly and fumbled for my camera in my handbag. Suddenly, the shrieks reached critical mass, and our train roared into the station. I gasped as it screeched to a halt in front of us. The Santa Train, blazing with strings of blinking multicolored lights from front to back, the windows covered in clinging plastic drifts of snow. One passenger car in the middle was missing, replaced by a flat, open-air car with elves. And a big sleigh. And a man in a red suit…with a broad face and a little round belly that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly. I gave up on my camera before I even boarded the train; photos would never do this experience justice. The train's door-closing bell bonged persistently, and we pushed into the car slowly, all oohs and aahs as we absorbed it. The outside of the train was merely festive, but the inside actually seemed to contain Christmas itself. Well, as much of it as would fit after the 700 strollers. Shimmery tinsel and twinkling lights lined the ceilings. Every pole was candy-cane striped. Red velvet bows hung over the doors. Holiday music blared through the tinny speakers, over the conductor, even over the howls and squeals of the children. Even the upholstery had changed: snowmen with corncob pipes, Santa legs sticking up from sooty chimneys. Twin toddler boys with blue eyes the size of saucers — their grandmother called them the Pierogi and the Cannoli because one had brown hair and the other was a downy blond — gazed in awe at the spectacle around them, their hands covered in a sticky mix of candy cane and saliva. Cannoli, the curious one, stood up in his seat at every station and pressed his nose and lips to the foggy glass to see outside. I'm not sure if we were more transfixed by the train or those precious little boys in their miniature puffy coats. I'd waited all week for this ride, and it was everything I'd hoped for. We settled back into our seats, sipping our drinks. I sang along with the Christmas songs — I know the words to just about every one, and there are few arrangements I haven't heard — sang at the top of my lungs. No one could hear me over the din, but I wouldn't have cared either way. Then I looked around, and I saw that nearly everyone was singing. Today offered us a pass to embrace Christmas with all the childlike gusto we could muster. When the train reached the Merchandise Mart, we reluctantly filed out with a herd of families who all stopped to pose and take pictures in front of Santa's car. Then the train rolled away, leaving a grey void behind it in the station. The last of the children ran up the stairs after their parents, and we threw our red cups away and followed them out. Into the fading afternoon light of slushy, wintry Chicago. But feeling just a little warmer on the inside.
Red Christmas decorations dangle from the ceiling and stick to windows throughout Starbucks. My favorite, a cardboard-cutout ornament in the shape of a bell, says, "I wish grown-ups could remember being kids." I've been thinking that a lot lately. I guess it's easy enough to forget, considering all the pressures of the adult world. All the demands in our lives, even during the holidays. Especially during the holidays: Presents. Finances. Parties. Weight gain. Family. Pre-vacation deadlines. Letting down the ASPCA. Santa. As a kid? No pressure, no demands. Presents were all about giving, with no agenda. Snow days. Unbridled overeating. Candy canes. "ASPCA" was just a bunch of letters. Dogs and cats were never abused, only showered with love and the occasional too-tight hug around the collar. And Santa. Letting go of all those grown-up pressures and demands today, even for just an hour, made me remember being a kid again. When everything was easier — or, even if it wasn't, I was better at pretending.