Even in the daytime, the Blue Comet was dark. With its shadowy charm, the small bar inside Newark Penn Station reminded me of the joints Charles Bukowski used to write about during his drinking days. The Coors Light clock on the wall read 3:00. Turning around on the stool, I looked through the bar’s window, glancing past neon signs and a uniformed policeman standing near the side door.
At that early hour, the terminal was not as crowded as it would be. A few people were bustling through the doors leading to the platforms. One high-heeled woman, obviously late for something, ran down the terrazzo-floored corridor. Even now, closing my eyes I slowly drift back to the first time I ever visited Newark Penn Station, sitting at that same bar 20 years before with a woman I loved.
It was Christmas Eve 1994, and I was in a cab headed to Newark Penn Station with my New Jersey-born girlfriend, Lesley Pitts. At 28, she was an attractive, round-faced woman with a cinnamon colored complexion. Her comfy animal-skinned coat was the only thing fake about her. Having spent the day at her parents’ home in Irvington, we were rushing to the terminal to catch an 8:00p Amtrak to Baltimore to see my family.
Together for three years, one of our early traditions was rushing from city to city during the holidays. Lesley was a big fan of Christmas, as well as the songs that were the soundtrack of the season. Our first year together, she introduced me to Alexander O’Neal’s cover of the Donny Hathaway classic, “This Christmas.” While every year I looked forward to my friend Bill Adler’s cool, kooky and soulful Xmas Jollies mixtape (which introduced me to the Marvin Gaye masterpiece “Purple Snowflakes” one year), Lesley’s own enthusiasm for holiday music was contagious.
That year, Mariah Carey’s beautifully catchy “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was released, and we kept humming the Phil Spectoresque song, occasionally singing it aloud and laughing childishly when we caught ourselves. As a fan of girl groups from that beehive Ronnie Spector/Darlene Love/Supremes school of swoon, Carey crafted a song (modern and exciting) that was an homage to that era.
Coming at a time when I thought all the good Christmas songs had already been done, Carey co-wrote that gem with producer Walter Afanasieff, and the song became an instant classic. Afanasieff, obviously a Wall of Sound fan, created a joyful noise filled with sleigh bells, soulful synthesizers and heavy background vocals.
While we were at Lesley parents’ house exchanging gifts, she played an assortment of Christmas music including the Jackson 5 Christmas Album, which I first owned when I was Afro-wearing Michael Jackson fan who couldn’t get enough of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Still, Carey’s song was buzzing through my brain, and the only cure was playing it “just one more time.” Indeed, my growing addiction to the song was a sign of my weakness to Carey’s voice, which I’d felt since “Vision of Love.” It was almost sad how much she’d taken over my mind. But I didn’t care who heard me singing it, including the African cab driver who picked us up.
“I don’t want a lot for Christmas/There is just one thing I need/I don’t care about the presents/Underneath the Christmas tree,” I sang (badly), swinging my arms in my best backup singer manner. As a kid, me, my younger brother Carlos, and our friend Darryl Lawson always pretended to be the Pips, and all my moves were coming back as entered into some kind of ’70s Soul Train fantasy as I ad-libbed for Carey and threw in a few extra “shoo wops.”
Twenty minutes later, the driver pulled over to the curb. Glancing at the digital clock next to the meter, we had an hour before our train would be zooming through the darkness, passing smoke-spewing factories and suburban homes, towards the Southern states. Outside it was freezing, and the air’s stillness felt like snow as we stepped in front of the stately limestone building. With its grand pillars and large windows, the station was beautiful.
Unlike Lesley, who’d grown up in the area and often told tales about her wild teenage years riding the Jersey Transit to go clubbing in “the city” (a rite of passage for many local adolescents), I was stranger to the station. Grabbing our suitcases from the trunk, for a few seconds I stared at the lovely façade and Roman-numeral clock.
Walking through the ornate metal doors into the building, we rolled our suitcases on our way to the Amtrak waiting room. Over the doorways, there were aluminum sunbursts; the W.P.A. liked using aluminum with decorative flair. Suddenly I began to see the station in a different light, as it revealed to me its splendored Deco-styled beauty and regal history. “You stay with the suitcases,” Lesley instructed, “and I’ll deal with the tickets.”
A publicist my profession, Lesley was always ready to deal with tickets and reservations while I handled the bags. In the colossal room that Christmas Eve night, loud announcements boomed through the P.A. system as children played nearby. Smiling at a set of crying twin babies in their stroller clad in red and green, I sat on the end of the walnut bench.
Forty feet above, the ceiling—its globed chandeliers decorated with the astrological signs of the zodiac—remained exquisite. Amongst the holiday chaos of clanging charity bells, Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas” in the distance, Newark Penn Station was reminiscent an Edward Hooper painting done in the era when train travel was golden.
Lesley finally returned from the ticket counter. Standing in front of me, she smiled sadly and shook her head. “Our train is two hours late,” she said. Jeez, I thought, we wouldn’t get to Baltimore until sometime in the middle of the night. “Don’t worry about it; I know where we can go until it’s time.”
Passing a McDonald’s, a shoeshine kiosk and a newsstand, moments later we stood in front the Blue Comet. “Here we are.” As a connoisseur of dive bars, it was the best Christmas present ever. Turning around, I kissed Lesley on the cheek and started singing that Mariah Carey ditty loudly. “You’re silly,” she laughed, pulling her bag behind her.
Like Lesley and I, there were more than a few weary folks who just wanted to get on the road and were trying to make the best of a bad situation. On the right wall hung a large vintage poster of the famed Blue Comet train that the bar swiped its name from. We ordered doubles of Jack Daniel’s. “Merry Christmas,” Lesley and I toasted one another, clicking our glasses.
For the next couple of hours, we sat in that warm, friendly place and shared the night with a roomful of strangers who’d become temporary friends. Later, when the Amtrak was finally due, we shouted farewell to our new pals and, moments later, rode an escalator to the platform.
We’d been so busy celebrating, we didn’t notice the falling snow until we were outside. Buttoning her faux-leopard skin coat tightly, we stood silently on the platform as our train chugged down the track, its light shining on her lovely face as a single snowflake landed on her nose and quickly dissolved. “… Baby!” I sang, hugging her tight as the train finally pulled into the station.
In the 20 years since the release of “All I What for Christmas Is You”—as well as that Christmas Eve we were stuck at Newark Penn Station—so much has happened in the world and in my personal life, including Lesley’s sudden death in the summer of 1999 from a brain aneurysm. As for Mariah’s timeless song, it’s only become even more popular, especially after the release of the 2003 romantic comedy Love, Actually, in which Olivia Olson stole the film singing Carey’s classic.
Twenty years later, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” remains a favorite; it’s a exquisite pop song that perfectly captures the spirit of the season, conjuring countless memories and serving as an aural snapshot of love that never fades.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.