Jay, Aaron and I practiced singing the Christmas carols a few minutes in Jay’s basement before heading out into the freezing neighborhood. We were terrible, three pre-pubescent boys with changing voices trying to belt out “Jingle Bells,” “Joy to the World “ and “Silent Night.” We gave up midway through each song and said it would sound better outside where there weren’t walls to echo our voices back to us. We didn’t really care how we sounded as long as we got paid, though. One of us had heard old ladies would give money to Christmas carolers.
We bundled up in our Starter coats, donned our winter caps and grabbed the printouts of lyrics and hit the streets around dusk. There was no snow yet, but it was very cold. We walked around the State Streets, looking for houses where generous old people might live. We could usually spot an old person’s house because they were pristinely kept.
As we walked, I voiced my skepticism that anyone would give us money. I had never heard of such a thing.
“People do it all the time,” Jay Buck said. “Don't be such a pussy, Yanni.”
“Well, should we ask them if they want us to sing?” I asked.
“No way,” Jay said. “That gives them the opportunity to say no.”
“Yeah, I say we just start singing,” Aaron said.
So it was settled: Once a door opened, we’d just launch into a carol. I was sure we’d be chased away from all the front doors by old women with brooms.
We walked the winding streets until finding a ranch we all felt was suitable. The lights were on, so that was a good sign. Jay knocked on the door and we waited, standing three abreast on the lawn with our sheet music. There was movement in the big bay window where a television beamed behind curtains. Someone was getting up from a chair and coming to the door.
My nerves pulsed. Were we really doing this?
An older woman with gray hair and gold earrings opened the door. From the gust of must that hit our faces, it must have been the first time in weeks.
“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way!” we started, our voices off-key and wildly cracking. “O what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh. Hey!”
We were out of tune and couldn’t keep a harmony. We skipped over some of the words and would sometimes be singing different lyrics at the same time.
I was waiting for the woman to turn around and call the police. But then something miraculous happened. We kept singing and the woman actually smiled. She called her husband over and they stood in the doorway with their arms around each other’s waists while we sloppily made it through “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.”
When we were finished, the old man reached into his back pocket, pulled out a giant, thick wallet, peeled off a five-dollar bill and handed it to Jay, who was eagerly reaching for it.
“Thank you, boys. That was lovely,” the woman said.
I was floored.
“Thank you!” we cried back in unison as we hustled away from the house.
“I told ya!” Jay said joyously, holding up the fin for us all to see before cramming it into his pocket. "Come on. Let’s find another house."
We went to about a dozen in the course of an hour and a half. I was slightly redeemed when an impatient middle-aged woman slammed the door in our faces before we could get to the second line of the song. But many of the people – even some younger folks our parents’ age – slid us cash for our caroling.
By the end of the night, I think we had amassed about thirty or forty bucks. We decided to go to Daly’s, an old 1950s drive-in burger place and Livonia landmark that was down the block from my house. We usually couldn’t afford it and never went there, instead opting for much cheaper fast food places like McDonald’s or Wendy’s. But now we were flush with cash and even though it took about a half hour to walk there in the cold, it was worth it.
Our faces were red from being outside. It felt good to be inside the warmth of the restaurant. Steam rose from a buffet in the middle of the room, fogging up the sneeze guard. We sat a few feet away from it in a booth at a checkered table and ordered their delicious hamburgers, which came with a choice of salad or coleslaw.
“I'd like a bucket of slaw, please,” Jay Buck told the waitress.
"Excuse me?" the waitress asked. She was old enough to have worked there when it first opened in 1959 and wasn’t amused by three junior high kids with a pocket full of money.
Aaron and I thought it was the funniest thing we’d ever heard and couldn’t help but laugh.
“I want a big old bucket of slaw,” Jay said.
“So, you want the coleslaw?” she asked.
“As long as it comes in a bucket.”
“I’m putting you down for the coleslaw,” she said, shaking her head.
She turned her head to me. I also ordered a hamburger.
“Salad or coleslaw?”
“I’d also like a bucket of slaw,” I said.
We three sniggered and the waitress sighed, wrote down the order in the green pad.
Aaron also ordered a hamburger and a bucket of slaw. The waitress shook her head one last time and went to the kitchen to put the order in.
We erupted in laughter when she left.
“I only eat my slaw outta buckets!” Jay Buck announced.