A PHILLY CHRISTMAS...THE FIRST OF THREE STORIES.
My little study group in med school gathered just about every evening, after dinner at the diner on the corner. Cliff Buckley, Ivan Butler, Ron Caputo, Dick Witzig, Andy Cattano, Frank Pugliese. And me. We went on until 1 or 2 AM with a break about 11 to get 25 cent burgers at the White Castle down the street. And play the pinball machine. Study groups were the only way to cram in the facts the professors threw at us every day. It would take an act of God to have us miss a night. Or something very special.
TAKING A BREAK AT WHITE CASTLE. ABOUT MIDNITE.
A night or two before Christmas break Freshman year we decided we would go Christmas caroling. That definitely qualified as being something very special.
Medical schools are not usually located in upscale neighborhoods. And Hahnemann, in the heart of downtown Philly, was no exception. The reddish-grey stone medical school buildings date back over a hundred years. They’re not meant to be warm and fuzzy. They’re meant to stand for a few hundred years more. And intimidate medical students in the bargain. The houses that surround it are mostly two and three story row houses. A neighborhood you would definitely categorize as rough. No problem for us. We walked back and forth from our rented rooms to the med school building any hour of the day or night protected by our white lab coats. No one ever sassed us.
The winds in old cities have a very nasty habit of accelerating down streets and between buildings. The colder the weather, the nastier the wind. Goes with the territory. This night the cold December wind had an even sharper bite than usual. We fortified ourselves with Southern Comfort and thick sweaters under our starched white lab coats and gave it a go about 10 that night.
Our first stop was the student nurses’ dorm. In those days there was an archaic custom called ‘curfew.’ We couldn’t get into the dorm lobby and the student nurses weren’t allowed out so we stood on the sidewalk filled with the Christmas spirit and caroled as they waved and threw kisses.
Then it was on to the corner tavern, a joint not even at the tail end of the long list for the Michelin Guide to Philadelphia. We serenaded the usual suspects slumped at the bar and the owner bought us a round. Probably to get us out of there.
We sang all the way back to our rented rooms.
The study group went on after Christmas break and we went caroling the next year and the year after that.
“Tradition is the illusion of permanence.” Woody Allen wrote that.
We gathered at that corner tavern on graduation morning to celebrate before the formal ceremonies. In spite of Dean Cameron’s warning on that first day of classes, “Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you isn’t going to be here in four years.” all of us in our study group had made it through. We were officially doctors. Some of the other groups hadn’t been so lucky but we had proven him wrong.
We would go on. Residencies, fellowships, private practice, the Army. Scattered all over the country. But for me I never sang a Christmas carol again without thinking about those nights and the thick sweaters and the starched white lab coats and the wind whistling down dark streets. And our little study group.