The Manhattan Christmas is the most idealized holiday experience you could imagine. Kevin McCallister abandoned his family to enjoy it and New York cop John McClane killed ten terrorists because he was forced to spend Christmas in L.A. That old Macy’s escalator, that 76ft Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, and those contentious Salvation Army red kettles are what many people need to feel holiday spirit. One of the most awesome things about New York, however, is that you don’t have to limit yourself to that very specific Manhattan Christmas set of experiences.
Some people like to settle in with ham and Charlie Brown on Christmas Day, but me? I love to go to work.
For the past five years, I’ve had the pleasure of working at a cafe called Everyman Espresso in the East Village on Christmas Day. I’ve never been forced to work. I grew up working at a movie theater, so I was used to working on Jesus’s birthday. Coming from a broken home, I had no hope for a Christmas experience that wasn’t painfully awkward or highly contentious, so I’ve always enjoyed the distraction.
Narcissism is definitely a factor. People love you and love to pity you for working on December 25, even if you insist that you’re there of your own will. I like to dress the part. In 2009, I accidentally shrunk a red felt sweater in the dryer. I was bummed that I made such an amateur mistake and I couldn’t bring myself to toss it. Perhaps it would eventually unshrink itself in my closet? When I first asked Sam Penix [Everyman Espresso's amiable proprietor -Ed.] if I could work on Christmas, I knew I would have to go heavy on holiday joy. What’s the point of being open on Christmas if you’re going to let every customer know how miserable you are to be there? I unearthed the shrunken sweater and donned a matching Santa hat. Any doubt that I was happy to be at work on Christmas went up in chimney smoke. I looked ready to serve.
Cafe music can really set the tone for someone's day, particularly one as potentially stressful as Christmas. I carefully constructed a playlist of Christmas favorites, making sure that Mariah Carey’s seasonally ubiquitous “All I Want For Christmas Is You” played every hour on the hour with lesser known yuletide tunes by Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Twisted Sister sprinkled throughout. I had a blast the first year. Every customer was so kind and generous and made sure I knew how grateful they were to be served a good cup of coffee on Christmas Day, particularly by Santa's queerest little helper. I quickly realized that my Manhattan Christmas was special and this would need to be a tradition.
Over the years, as Everyman Espresso has grown in popularity and Christmas Day has gotten busier, I've attempted to add essential elements to the tradition. Some stuck, while others were disasters. I tried baking Christmas cookies one year with one for each frosting letter that would spell out “Merry Christmas Bitches”. I initially intended on baking cookies from scratch, but I succumbed to my own fear of screwing it up and bought pre-made dough. I was six cookies short of what I needed and while I thought about omitting the “Merry” I ended up scratching the “Bitches”. Those “Bitches” got the better end of the deal. The cookies ended up over baked and hideous and I vowed never to try that again.
Much easier to replicate year after year is the secret stash. For the past three years, I’ve kept brandy and egg nog under the counter for my favorite customers. That seasonal drink tastes so rich and sinful and it contributes to the warmth and decadence we’re supposed to feel on Christmas. Of course, I always need a drink after I hear Phil Spector’s creepy spoken word outro to his otherwise excellent album A Christmas Gift For You. If you find yourself around Everyman this year, I’ll be happy to give you some off-menu joy (provided you say the code-phrase, “Ho Ho Hooch”).
As the East Village has changed, so has my Christmas tradition. I see more faces, but they’re not always friendly. I still get mostly wonderful regulars who are excited for Christmas coffee, but I also get my fair share of privileged Manhattan snobs who roll their eyes at my unusual attire and take for granted the fact that we are one of the few food or beverage establishments open on Christmas. I wouldn’t treat them any differently than the cheerier customers, but the less pleasant interactions make me nostalgic for those early days.
This Christmas will be my last working for Everyman Espresso and while I don’t plan on making significant changes to the tradition for a show stopping finale (aside, perhaps, from screaming along to Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” at closing time), I’m hellbent on making it my happiest Christmas yet. It’s simple. Make coffee and be nice. Good customer service is the cheapest and finest gift I can give to the citizens of the best city in the world. If, like me, you find yourself working in a coffee shop – or any shop, for that matter – on Christmas this year, don’t be a Krampus. I've been pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to spread holiday joy, and I’ll always look back on these Everyman Christmases as the best ones a New Yorker could have.
Top photo courtesy of Everyman Espresso.