Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Christmas Story (Remembering Al Rousso)

My parents have been married now for more than 55 years and every Christmas my father does “his” Christmas shopping at the last minute.

Times may have changed; he has even embraced the internet with packages arriving through out the year via the Brown UPS Truck. But Christmas has always meant a last minute dash to the jewelry store.

A number of years have passed but for the longest time there was a Christmas Eve trip to Brownlee Jewelers in the Johnson Building on South Tryon in Downtown Charlotte, North Carolina.

One year, I was privileged enough to witness an event that had been occurring every Christmas Eve since at least the early 70’s.

The familiar jingle of a bell held over the door announced our entrance. Despite several customers crowed into the small store, the owner Al Rousso immediately spotted my father. Calling him by name: “Clif, good to see you, I’ve been expecting you.”

A warm smile sprang to his face. “Come on in I got something I want to show you.” Al offered, as he opened the small half swing door that separated the customers from the other side of the glass counters and the jewelry salesmen.

As we were quickly swept into the back office, Al looked around, obviously checking for anyone within earshot. “I’ve been saving this just for you, something I know your wife (he knew her name as well) will really enjoy.”

My mother would have been happy with red and white Christmas pot holders the one’s with a reindeer on one side and a sleigh on the other. But my father always gave her something that sparkled and came in a small box.

Mr. Rousso reached down, opened a safe and withdrew a small six inch long box covered in navy blue velvet. He looked around again playing his role with exaggerated movements and came closer to my father and me. He opened the box just for the briefest of moments and immediately closed it.

“Well what do you think?” Al asked. “Wow …. Oh My…. Honey you shouldn’t have?” Mr. Rousso added.

My father nods in agreement.

“I’ve been fighting off my employees for weeks but this I told them is for someone special.” Nervously he looks around and opens the box again. You would have thought we were about to buy a stolen gem the size of your fist. A back alley deal so good we should be arrested on the spot.

“And the price?” My father asks.

Al looks at the bottom of the box and hands it to my father, who shows it to me. Al interrupts by asking us to keep it out of sight for what he is about to do the other customers will most likely riot and all his employees might just quit on the spot.

“The price is blank but for you ….blank” My father looks like a deer in the headlights, no doubt the price is well beyond what he had in mind.

After a long painful pause Al concedes “But since its Christmas blank less blank”… and adds “please I beg you don’t tell anyone what a good deal I’m giving you.”

My father smiles and with a quick signature on a small three part carbon sales bill it is added to my father’s account. The yellow customer copy neatly folded and placed into his wallet and the gift slipped into his suit coat pocket. We all shake hands then the jingle above the door announces our departure, as Mr. Rousso and my father shout Merry Christmas to each other.

Down the glimmering marble lobby and through the heavy brass doors we step back out onto the street a brisk wind at our backs. And that was it, in less than five minutes our Christmas Eve mission was accomplished.

And so I was left to assume that the interchange between the Jewish jewelry store owner and my father the Christian buying a gift for his wife had repeated itself many times before and perhaps years after that, a simplistic ritual, nearly as old as time, merchant and client.

Al Rousso passed away in 2001 at the age of 76, but the small store at 212 South Tryon Street remains and the Rousso family continues the tradition of Brownlee Jewelers. Though I truly doubt it is with the level of theater and salesmanship I witnessed on Christmas Eve so long ago.

No comments: