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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Finding Christmas at Puglia's Deli

December 19, 2012|By Joe Puglia

Mrs. Testa was an old curmudgeon. She lived alone on the fifth floor of my building; rarely did she leave her apartment. It was rumored that she once was a beautiful countess in Milano. She may have been; I know she was very wealthy. It was sad that no one in our neighborhood ever knew her first name.

Mrs. Testa spoke to no one but me. It was a business arrangement. Once a month I'd wash her windows. After holding on for dear life, five floors above the pavement, I'd walk away with an extra dollar. I would have done it for nothing, because I loved living on the edge.

I felt sorry for her, sorry that she was alone and she didn't care that she was. Mrs. Testa lived alone not because she enjoyed solitude. People like her have tried to blend into the world before, but were disappointed. It was just easier for her to stay home because she was weaker than her fear of people.

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Sylvia Plath said, “The loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.” This is especially true during the Christmas season. There are few things in life more awful than feeling empty and alone at Christmas. The relentless pressure to be jolly, to feel happy, and to be surrounded by loving friends leaves many people feeling isolated and miserable at this time of year. Loneliness is the malaise and love is the tonic to the alchemy of Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, 1964 the Bronx was paralyzed by a terrible storm. The pipes in our apartment building, which was adjacent to our deli, froze, then burst. The result was no heat. Our deli had a large wood-burning stove. We filled it with coal and fired it up. The only place on the block that had heat was Puglia's Delicatessen.

My mother and I scurried throughout the building, inviting families to the deli to escape the cold. People came and lingered for the heat, but stayed for the magic that was happening. I fired up some 55-gallon drums filled with coal and placed them in front of the deli. My dad poured shots of whiskey and opened a gallon of wine. My mom and other women prepared coffee and a large pot of pasta. The older folks sat on milk crates, mothers held babies, little children played at the adults' feet. We shoveled a path in the snow from the building to our store. The Bronx Boys and the men hung outside by the fire, passing a bottle of hooch.

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