I was a reporter in Chicago in the dead of winter, 1967. Nasty. Below zero. Snow and ice everywhere. Brutal wind. A little before Hanukkah and Christmas.
My shift was 3 to 12. Dinner was about 6 p.m. or so. It was so cold that night that all I wanted to do was cross Michigan Avenue and settle for a plastic hamburger and a coffee. When I was paying, there was a kid reaching into his pocket to pay for a purchase in the gift shop. He was mixed race, and had that kind of hat with pull-down earmuffs and a heavy jacket to insulate from the piercing wind. Boots. An empty newspaper sack hanging over his back.
“What are you doing out on such a night? Looks like you’re playing Santa Claus,” I said to the kid, who said his name was Robin Washington.
“I’m on my newspaper route, collecting,” he said. “I’m buying a Hanukkah present for my mother. She’s Jewish. My father is Catholic, so I have to get a Christmas present for him.”
As he spoke, he pulled some crumpled bills out of his pocket and handed them to the cashier, who gave him a package in exchange. This kid was 9 at best.
“That’s how I got the money for this,” he explained, with a devotion that lifts you.
As I said, it was nasty that night in Chicago. And listen, I love my parents, don’t get me wrong. But I wouldn’t be outside on a night like that if I didn’t have to be. Here’s this 9-year-old trudging through the bitter night on his newspaper route to get presents for his parents. Quite a kid, I thought.
The kid left.
I paid my bill after him and walked out to blustery Michigan Avenue. I looked for the kid, then spotted him pushing against the wind up the deserted, double-wide street.
“God, if there ever was a Santa Claus, there he goes,” I thought, watching that determined, brave little kid angled against the wind.
Just walking across the street to my office at United Press International was more than I could handle.
When I got to my desk, my fingers started moving rhythmically across the keyboard with the story of Robin Washington. It’s the feeling writers train for, go through torture for — a story that tells itself without much fuss.
I didn’t say a word to my night colleagues. I was focused on putting the words to the paper, excited actually to see the next line, which came without the normal kind of bleeding stories can exact. I recalled it just as it happened. It didn’t need anything else.
When it was done, I sent it to the night editor, a great craftsman, who read it, then put it out on the wire without editing, rare for him. Perfect for Hanukkah and Christmas.
The story went out again on the day shift, and in the next several days, editors in the New York headquarters were sending messages to me that they loved it. I only had two years’ experience so I was happy.
The next day, clips of the story from newspapers around the country came in the mail, with headlines like “9-year-old Jewish boy plays Santa Claus.” Then there were letters, with checks for Robin Washington enclosed.
I found the kid and called him to come to the office. His jaw dropped when I handed him the cash and checks that came to a Santa Claus all of us want to believe in.
Leonard Fisher retired in 2005 after nearly 40 years in the newspaper business. He was associate editor of The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, where he also served as city editor, state capital bureau chief, and as an investigative reporter. He spent 1967 and 1969 at United Press International in Chicago.