far too much writing, far too many photos

Ghosts of Christmases Past

[conclusion of entry begun on 16 December]

In putting together this dip into Christmases long gone, I found myself thinking about one Christmas Eve in particular, that of my first year of college. The oddest Christmas Eve I’ve ever experienced.

During my years in high school, my parents had a house built on the family land north of Albany, N.Y. [see journal entry of 15 October, 2001], and pretty much the nanosecond I graduated 12th grade, they bolted from Long Island. I had the house on the Island to myself that summer — yes, we are indeed talking large-scale partying — after which I bumbled my way up to University in Binghamton, N.Y.

I met some interesting folks at school that autumn, including Tony and Jackie, a couple from Huntington on Long Island — two lovely people. When classes broke for the holidays, I returned to the Island where I would pass a few days before driving upstate to inflict myself on my parents. On Christmas Eve, I was to pick up Tony, Jackie and Jackie’s cousin, a nice woman whose name I can’t seem to remember, then drive us all into Manhattan. Tony and Jackie would go uptown to a movie, a downtown concert awaited Jackie’s cousin and I. Post-performance, she and I would collect T&J, we’d all head back out to the Island.

And that’s what I did. I found my way out to Huntington, crammed them all into my VW bug, we sped west toward Manhattan. A nice drive — Christmas Eve, the four of us in the bug, Jackie’s cousin and I seeming to enjoy being with each other. Conversation flowed easily, the evening’s beginning unfolded comfortably.

We were 15 minutes or so from crossing the East River, Christmas lights shining around us in the evening darkness. Out of nowhere — literally, with no prior thought on my part — the statement “My car’s going to be broken into tonight” popped itself out of my mouth. Startling me every bit as much as it startled everyone else.

A moment of silence. Jackie gazed at me strangely, saying nothing. No one ventured to ask, tactfully or not, what I’d meant. We all just quietly sidled our way around the moment, conversation slowly resumed, the evening continued on. A short time later, we landed in Manhattan, I dropped T&J off, Jackie’s cousin and I zipped downtown. I hadn’t forgotten about the mystery statement, though. And though I managed to keep it from intruding in any visible way on my time with Jackie’s cousin, I found myself in a growing state of worry and preoccupation. Everything I’d brought with me from college was in the car (me not being smart enough to leave it all in Huntington). A paltry collection of belongings, really — some clothes, a box of records, Christmas gifts for my family — packed tightly into the teensy trunk and the cramped space behind the rear seat. It was what I had, though, and it was out there, draped in the shadows of a minimally-traveled, poorly-lit East Village street.

Post-concert, back out in the night air, I found my pace slowly accelerating — Jackie’s cousin nicely indulgent, not complaining about our increasing speed — until we reached the car, where I could see for myself that the vehicle had gone undisturbed.

Huge relief. Apprehension bled away, my heart slowed to its normal, happier state. We mounted up and returned uptown.

T&J were at a theater on Fifth Avenue, just a stone’s throw from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Christmas Eve was in full swing, the Avenue packed with cars, the sidewalks dense with people. Amazingly, I found a parking space on the Avenue, about two blocks from the movie theater. We locked up the car, trotted to the theater, found T&J, headed back toward the bug. An excursion of five to ten minutes. As we neared the VW, I could see something was wrong and ran the remaining distance to discover that, with all the traffic going by, with the throngs of people out walking, someone had, in that five to ten minutes, forced their way into the vehicle and made off with my stuff. All of it.

I’d had the records stuffed into a packing box from a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which had been jammed behind the rear seat, apparently in clear enough view through the rear window to be inviting. Whoever spotted it had expected to find a piece of electronic equipment. They wound up with albums, luggage, Christmas presents.

It’s an interesting life.

My parents’ insurance company treated me kindly, covering enough of the losses that I could replace the gifts for my family, the part of the whole affair that had hit me the hardest. The rest was just stuff. So that, apart from some emotional tumult, everything more or less worked itself out. Kind of like life itself.

Be well, everyone. May you spend the holidays with folks you love, in ways that feel good to heart and soul.

Nine days have passed without a new entry here. That would be because on the morning of the 18th I hopped an early flight back to the States, where I’ve been having far too much fun doing far too much socializing. Last night, Christmas Eve, I joined a select group of friends for what has become the annual Christmas Eve dinner in Chinatown, followed by a hilarious/inspiring Christmas lights tour of one or two neighborhoods in Somerville (a Boston-area town squeezed between Cambridge and I-93) where we witnessed some righteously excessive displays. A Boston radio station provided a soundtrack of Christmas music from the past 60 or so years — from Bing to Phil (Spector) to insipid pop dreck.

I need to invest in a digital camera so I can inflict images from such activities on this journal.

I send Sincere wishes for a fine holiday season — good will to all the denizens of the planet.

A Non-Gentile Night Before Christmas (Boston Style):

EREV CHRISTMAS

‘Twas the night before Christmas and we, being Jews,

My girlfriend and me — we had nothing to do.

The gentiles were home, hanging stockings with care,

Secure in their knowledge that St. Nick would be there.

But for us, once the Hanukkah candles burned down,

There was nothing but boredom all over the town.

The malls and the theaters were all closed up tight,

There weren’t any concerts to go to that night.

A dance would have saved us, some ballroom or swing,

But we searched through the papers — there wasn’t a thing.

Outside the window sat two feet of snow;

With the wind-chill, they said it was fifteen below.

And while I then sat on my tuchus to brood,

My sweetie saved the night, calling out “CHINESE FOOD!”

So we ran to the closet, grabbed hats, mitts and boots

To cover our heads and our hands and our foots.

We pulled on our jackets, all puffy with down,

And ran for the T, bound for old Chinatown.

The train, nearly empty, rolled through the stops,

While visions of wontons danced through our kopfs.

We hopped off at Park Street, the Common was bright

with fresh-fallen snow and the trees strung with lights,

Then crept through “The Zone” with its bums and its thugs

And entrepreneurs selling ladies and drugs.

At last we reached Chinatown and rushed through the gates,

Past bakeries, past markets, past shops and cafes,

In search of a restaurant: “Which one? Let’s decide!”

We chose “Hunan Chozer” and ventured inside.

Around us sat other Jews, their platters piled high

With the finest of foods that their money could buy.

There was roast duck and fried squid (sweet, sour and spiced),

Dried kosher beef and mixed veggies, lo mein and fried rice,

Whole fish and moo shi and “shrimp” chow mee foon,

And General Gau’s chicken and ma po tofu.

When at last we decided and the waiter did call,

We said: “Skip the menu!” and ordered it all.

And when in due time the food was all made,

It came to the table in a sort of parade.

Before us sat dim sum, spare ribs and egg rolls,

And four different soups in four different huge bowls.

The courses kept coming, from spicy to mild,

And higher and higher toward the ceiling were piled.

And while this went on, we became aware

Every diner around us had started to stare.

Their jaws hanging open, they looked on unblinking,

Some dropped their teacups, some drooled without thinking.

So much piled up, one dish after another,

My girlfriend and I couldn’t see one another.

Now we sat there, we two, without proper utensils,

While they handed us something that looked like two pencils.

We poked and we jabbed till our fingers were sore

And half of our dinner wound up on the floor.

We tried — how we tried! — but, and truth to tell,

Ten long minutes later and still hungry as well,

We swallowed our pride, feeling vaguely like dorks,

And called to our waiter to bring us two forks.

We fressed and we feasted, we slurped and we munched,

We noshed and we supped on breakfast and lunch.

We ate till we couldn’t and drank down our teas

And barely had room for our fortune cookies.

But my fortune was perfect, it summed up the mood

Saying, “Even if it was kosher, it was real Chinese food!”

And my sweetie — well, she got a true winner.

Hers said, “Your companion will pay for the dinner.”

Our bellies were full and at last it was time

To travel back home and write some bad rhyme

Of our Chinatown trek (and to privately speak

About trying to refine our chopstick technique).

The MSG spun round and round in our heads,

As we tripped and we laughed and gaily we said,

As we carried our leftovers home through the night,

“Good Yom Tov to all, and to all a good night!”

A whole bunch of ways to waste a whole lot of time:

The Haiku Generator

The Shakespearean Insult Generator

…and another

…and another

…and yet another

(This just scratches the surface of the available Shakespearean Insult Generators — why the hell are there so many of these buggers?)

The Web Economy Bullshit Generator

(This one includes comments from satisfied users — for instance: “Congratulations! So simple yet so elegantly fecal!” — Peter L.)

The Apology Note Generator

In response to that last one, apparently due to many requests, by the same creator:

The Bitch Letter Generator

The Country-Western Song Generator

The Random Spanish Idiom Generator

(I apologize — this one is actually useful)

And my personal fave,

The Surrealist Compliment Generator

Ghosts of Christmases Past

I grew up in a Roman Catholic family, a middle middle-class clan planted in the middle middle-class community of North Merrick, near the south shore of Long Island, New York — all of that being a set of conditions which set the tone for many things, including the way Christmas unfolded year after year. (Planted’ is not the most accurate word, actually — transplanted might be more like it, my parents having moved there from Jackson Heights, N.Y.C. with my two brothers and me when I reached the six-month-old mark. Oddly enough, the housing development the family bought into was called the flower homes, all the streets bearing names in the vein of Verbena Avenue, Larkspur Avenue, Crocus Avenue. That last was our street — Crocus Avenue. So: planted, transplanted — whichever.)

Ours was not a spacious home. In my memory, it was decidedly unspacious — cramped, even. The ground floor consisted of a tiny kitchen into which my parents had rammed a small dinner table; a small dining room, which saw gustatory action only when holiday company happened by; a living room — the largest space in the liveable parts of the house, but again, not very, er, capacious; a teeny bathroom and two small bedrooms. The second floor consisted of two small bedrooms bookending a closet, and a crawlspace. I mention all this to draw a picture of a home notably short on storage capacity, a serious limitation for a family mothered by a professional packrat. The basement, in theory, had a fair amount of cubic footage for storage. In practice, most of it consisted of the laundry area, my father’s shop, and an unfinished play area, part of which had been cordoned off by a decrepit piano and a vaguely Japanese-style standing screen so that it could be utilized for desperately-needed storage. That left the basement’s built-in bar, which never saw any swilling of liquids — it got pressed into use as storage space.

We were not an affluent bunch in my younger years. On the contrary — austerity was the family m.o. Clothes were picked up at cut-rate stores and passed down the line as they were outgrown (where they wound up on my pudgy bod), and a fair amount of the furniture seemed to have been built by my father, with the notable exception of the living room sofa and armchairs, whose lives my mother extended through repeated patching and re-covering.

Many of the nicest items in the house were given by or inherited from relatives, including a sizeable portion of the Christmas decorations, which I think came by way of my Uncle Sam, the family’s only representative of the Jewish tradition, who married into our gene pool and lived in Brooklyn with my Aunt Florrie in a townhouse which, for many years, functioned as my only exposure to an affluent lifestyle. Despite the general threadbare lifestyle, we had a startling abundance of Christmas paraphernalia, including boxes and boxes of old, interesting German ornaments — again, as far as I know, courtesy of Uncle Sam — which contrasted nicely with the mass-produced stuff the family picked up over time. The decorations spent most of the year in the second-floor crawlspace, surviving summers that essentially transformed the space into a solar oven, miraculously making it from one Christmas to the next with most casualties occurring once they were actually out of the boxes and on the tree.

The holiday season began slowly in those years, not at the now customary 6-a.m.-day-after-Thanksgiving gallop. Halloween passed by. A few leisurely weeks of candy-consumption later Thanksgiving showed up. From there, the procession of days constituted a slow gathering of steam until about two weeks before the 25th, when everyone abruptly seemed to wake up to the alarming fact that Christmas lay 14 short days off. From there it was pandemonium. But enjoyable pandemonium, at least from my perspective. Darkness fell earlier and earlier, until one evening found my father outside stringing up lights in the cold December air. Somewhere around the middle of the month, someone picked up a tree and the living room became centered around something other than just the TV. The tree wound up in front of the living room window, the better to show off its soon-to-be-excessively-tinseled splendor to the neighborhood. Old, worn boxes materialized around it from which ornaments streamed, landing on strategic branches. Festive Christmas candles and other assorted tchochkies (or is it chotchkies?) materialized around the living and dining rooms, along with glass bowls of sour balls, ribbon candy and peanut brittle to appease the family’s eternal sugar jones. The household record player alternated Christmas carols hooted by Bing Crosby with Christmas carols performed on bells, chimes and the occasional overly-fruity Hammond organ. And the teeny manger scene surfaced, materializing on the top tier of the thigh-high dad-made bookshelf by the front stairway. Minus the baby Jesus, of course. He snuck in on during the pre-dawn hours of Christmas morning.

The manger scene was another interesting, foreign-made (I think) element of our Christmas season. Nicely crafted and painted, nothing cheesy about it, except arguably its music-box component, tucked away underneath which tinkled out “Away In A Manger” whenever someone cranked the bugger up. Which brings up the word ‘manger.’ When did everyone begin substituting the word ‘cresh’ for ‘manger?’ Sometime during the last 10 or 15 years a consensus was reached behind my back, manifesting suddenly enough that it felt like a kind of mysterious telepathic programming, as if it were the will of Landru and I’d somehow been left out of the loop. Not that it mattered much to me — I was long out of the whole Catholic thing by then. Still, it seemed strange.

As Christmas slouched closer and the air in the house grew tangy with the scent of the sacrificial pine tree, homes all over town became adorned with strings of lights and electric candelabras and glowing plastic figures of Santa and reindeer and candy canes and snowmen and solemn Jewish couples with babies named Jesus. Several blocks up Jerusalem Avenue (I am not making that name up) from our street, in the shadow of the Southern State Parkway overpass, the annual Christmas tree market got underway. I actually tried working there once, maybe during my 9th or 10th year. Man, I hated that. Standing out in a heavy snowfall one Saturday morning, dragging trees to buyers’ cars in the hopes they’d tip me well enough to make the suffering worth it. They didn’t, it wasn’t. I remember looking up into the sky, thick, white flakes swirling down around me, my hands aching with cold, my ears hurting, snow collecting in my collar. I asked myself what I was doing there, couldn’t come up with a good enough answer, came to my senses and went home to sit by our tree — benignly lit up, massively overdecorated — where I watched Saturday morning television drek on our console TV and ate a bowl of puffed sugar frosted chocolate bombs. Much better.

At some point, someone — maybe the local weekly newspaper, Merrick Life — began sponsoring a, er, front door contest, motivating homeowners to do up their front entrances as creatively — elaborate wreaths and light arrangements, big Santa faces, outsized simulations of gift wrapping — as they could, tossing a further point of concentrated color and light into the mix. I liked all this, actually. Still do.

And then, of course, the radio pumped an increasing amount of Christmas music into the house, advertising flyers featuring SALES, SALES, SALES slithered through the mail slot in droves, and a growing avalanche of Christmas imagery/music poured into the living room via the idiot box. Until Christmas eve, when one of the local New York City stations — channel 11, maybe — broadcast a yule log burning in a fireplace all evening long, and things quieted down.

In my younger years, no one in the family attended midnight mass. My father was one of the ushers at the 8 a.m. service, so that was where we ended up. That meant I would get shunted off to bed sometime before midnight, when the parental work crew finished the last-minute wrapping and staging of gifts. Considering the heap of presents that I found on Christmas morning, I can’t imagine where they’d been stashed in the days beforehand. As I’ve already laid out, the house was modest in size and deficient when it came to storage space — there weren’t many hidey-holes I didn’t track down in the pre-Christmas days. There just weren’t many effective spots of concealment, certainly none of any real cubic-footage. It was enough to make one believe in overweight pixies in garish outfits using animal slave labor to transport Christmas giftage.

Somewhere between my 10th and 12th years — between the time my mother moved out of the conjugal bedroom into separate quarters and my eldest brother went into the Coast Guard — tradition changed, midnight mass became part of the mix. Prior to that, I would rise around 4 or 5 a.m. on Christmas morning — my pudgy body agitated from anticipation for one little nervous system to keep anesthetized with sleep — go downstairs, turn on the lights in the living room, crank up the lights on the tree, and sit scoping out the display of presents, the world outside and the house around me silent and still. Just me, a pile of gifts, and a head riffling through thousands of possibilities for what might be lurking under all that wrapping. Actually unwrapping anything would result in me catching absolute hell when the parental units woke up. Likewise for anything like playing music or charging up the TV, the single difference being that hell would arrive sooner. My only option was the only option, which left me sitting alone, practically quivering with energy waiting to be released, until the day commenced and we went to church or ate breakfast or whatever the hell we did in any given year before the gift-opening ritual.

I suspect most families have their version of holiday rituals. I sure hope they do. I’d hate to think mine was the only one — trapped in slightly goofy behavior patterns, triggered when the daylight grew short and the yearly leftover-turkey assault started up. Some of the rituals were more general in form and timing, others more specific, more rigid. Case in point: the unwrapping of presents.

In the years when 8 a.m. mass was the rule, the present opening waited until later in the morning, until my parents had fortified themselves with a meal before stumbling, sleep-deprived, into the rest of the day. This, of course, was pure torture for me. In later years, as early mass blessedly became a distant memory, the unwrapping hour grew a bit more flexible, though still forbidden until after a round of morning chow and coffee. It was during those mornings that I learned the delicate art of hovering — never actually hanging over the person(s) to whom you’re beaming psychic commands (UNWRAP PRESENTS! UNWRAP PRESENTS!), but never truly disappearing from sight. Never nagging, but always present. Always somewhere nearby. Waiting.

Eventually my relentless mental assault wore them down. Chairs were pushed back from the kitchen table, dishes went into the sink, people began moving toward the living room. All members of the family materialized as if beamed in — focused, intent, making little conversation. I had bent them to my will and would soon have my triumphant way with whatever plunder awaited.

My father presided over the ceremony, taking a seat near ground zero. The rest of us found a serviceable chair or patch of rug. Homage was paid to the household’s unofficial 11th Commandment (Thou Shalt Not Throw Out Used Wrapping Paper) with a centrally-placed cardbox carton, and then my father parceled out the first round of booty. Everyone received a present, everyone opened their present, appropriate noises/comments/silences. Another round followed that. Then another. If, between any round, someone needed to get up — telephone call, potty break, numb butt — the proceedings were briefly put on hold. Briefly. With the person’s return, action recommenced until every gift had been flushed out of hiding. In my memory, I see the post-gift-ritual living room looking like a bomb had landed on it, like someone had broken open a monstrous piñata, leaving the area littered with debris. Not, I suspect, the actual scene. My mother may have been a packrat, the house may have been bulging with accumulated STUFF, but everything had its place, and that was the general state of things, even in the wake of a gift frenzy.

At this point, everyone else in the family took off to whatever responsibilities awaited. For my parents, that usually meant preparing for Christmas dinner. For my brothers, well, who knows. My oldest brother had eight years on me, so he was out of the mix as soon as he could manage it. Terry, the middle brother, had six years on me — he took the same path. They returned during the holidays from the Coast Guard/college, respectively, sometimes with company — sweethearts or folks far from home who were welcomed in for the day, positions that had been filled by high school sweethearts in previous years. And when my father’s mother was alive — the only grandparent to make it to my epoch — she usually took the train out from Brooklyn, often bringing a nice bakery cake to contribute to the dinner.

So for a while — two, three hours — I was left to entertain myself. Which usually meant remaining in the living room to survey the wreckage and wring some fun out of it. Which I often found surprisingly hard to do. My parents, bless their hearts, usually managed to shower me with a fair amount of toys, though rarely toys I might have asked for, so I found myself in the odd position of abundance, but usually not the abundance I would have chosen had I been able to choose. Which created the classic picture of material plenty creating little joy. (D’OH!) And when I occasionally managed to entertain myself with something I’d been given, my parents often regretted it as the proceedings had a tendency to become disorderly and raucous. I’m remembering rubber tipped darts flying around the household, I’m remembering plastic balls hurled at stacked-up, soon-to-be-wildly-airborne plastic Yogi Bears — all Christmas presents, all items I’m sure my parents quickly regretted. Interestingly, what seemed to work the best for all concerned were books — fiction, nonfiction, comic books; didn’t matter. I loved reading and my parents probably loved the blessed silence.

I’m not sure why I wasn’t consulted re: potential gifts. The one time I remember trying to ask for something, I did it via a letter to Santa Claus, probably around my seventh or eighth year. The family had had two kittens — Puss and Boots — both of whom suffered early, unpleasant demises, one from sickness, one under the wheels of the family car. I missed them and wrote Santa, asking for a kitten. The letter was given to my parents who swore they’d funnel it on the appropriate party. Come Christmas morning, I found a stuffed pussy cat under the tree. A little pink stuffed kitty. A nice thought, but not what I was looking for, and the first step in my disillusionment re: St. Nicholas a/k/a S. Claus.

So I killed time between the gift orgy and dinner. Once in a while I’d go bother a neighbor kid, but usually I kept to myself, and the times I wound up with something good to read were the best times.

The holiday dinners — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter — were the high points of the family year, I think. My mother — not normally an inspiring cook, I suspect because she loathed being trapped in the housewife thing, with its repetitive, low-status, mind-numbing duties — threw together excellent feeds, meals I remember to this day with an automatic drool-response. And the combination of the staggering expanse of excellent food and guests brought out the best in the family. Hilarious conversation, exchanges that burst into one-liner fests, producing great laughter and good cheer. Times that stand out in my memory as genuine fun, times when I saw the best aspects of my family. Rich memories, memories that make me smile.

Here in Spain, it is often the custom to linger over a meal, drawing out the time together with conversation and long, relaxed eating and drinking. The time after the meal proper, when the diners relax and enjoy being with other, is called sobremesa — over the table. It reminds me of the way holiday dinners in our home lingered on, through all the various courses, the second and third rounds, the dessert and beyond. Just sitting, enjoying. When I think back on it, that to me best embodied the holidays — time together when we could, however tense and fractious our life in general may have been, create fun together. Fun was often a rare commodity in our family, or at least that’s how it stands in my memory. Except during the holidays.

[concluded in 25 Dec. journal entry]

The headlines from today’s (Sunday, 16 Dec. 2001) El País, Spain’s lefty daily newspaper:

La ola de frío deja a Cataluña aislada y al borde del caos
(The wave of cold leaves Cataluña isolated and on the verge of chaos)

La UE pone en marcha la futura Constitución para todos los europeos
(The E.U. puts into motion the future Constitution for all Europeans)

Los chechenos de Bin Laden resisten en Tora Bora
(The Chechens of Bin Laden resist in Tora Bora)

Negocios — Las Empresas frenan empleo e inversión
(Business — Businesses put the brakes on hiring and investment)

And the headline stories from the El País Sunday magazine:

Qué Pasó Con El Neandertal? — Nuevos Descubrimientos Reescriben La Historia De La Evolución Humana
(What Happened to Neanderthal? — New Discoveries Rewrite the History of Human Evolution)

La Escuela de Los Dictadores — Una Academia Militar de EE.UU Ha Sido Una Cantera de Golpistas
(The School of the Dictators — A U.S. Military Academy Has Been A Breeding Ground for Those Who Would Lead Coups)
[Note: This refers to The School of the Americas, an institution in Fort Benning where many hundreds of South and Central American military types have been trained in the dubious arts of repression, torture and the violent overthrow of governments.]

An online English version of El País can be found here. It takes a little time to load — be patient.

Finally, headlines from today’s edition of El Mundo, Spain’s center-right daily:

Según dos de sus tres Comandantes Los muyahidín dicen haber tomado Tora Bora y que no hay rastro de Bin Laden
(Two of the three commanders of the Mujahadeen say they’ve taken Tora Bora with no sign of Bin Laden)

La Audiencia de Sevilla atribuye a ETA el suicidio de un agente
(The Superior Court of Andalucía attributes the suicide of a national police officer to the terrorist group ETA)

La Guardia Civil crea unidades ‘antiglobalización’ para la presidencia española de la UE
(The National Police creates ‘antiglobalization’ units for the Spanish presidency of the European Union)

I’ve figured out why the Spaniards have been going nuts about the arrival of cold weather — because it’s freakin’ cold! Madrid weather being so generally benign — relatively warm in spring/autumn, authentically hot from May through September — one forgets what it feels like to walk outside into an intense blast of winter air. Temperature today at 1 p.m. (according to a street clock/thermometer): -2 centigrade, meaning it probably remained below freezing all day. Everyone looks a bit dazed by it, walking around slightly hunched over, cheeks red. Fur coats — far more popular here than in the States — have quickly become a common sight.

In recent days, I’ve been searching nearby sections of Madrid for Christmas cards (tarjetas de Navidad). There are few to be found, and what I’ve seen so far have been godawful. Tacky, sentimental, badly drawn/painted. Went to the Thyssen Museum this morning — a world-class joint, with a store that sells a broad selection of prints and post cards. Nothing. No Christmas cards. At all.

Good thing I have a few leftover Unicef cards, otherwise I’d be in trouble.

**************************

A funny that’s been making the e-mail rounds:

MEMORANDUM

Friday Dec. 12, 2001 @ 8:17am

FM: Bin Laden, Osama
TO: All Cavemates
RE: The Cave

Hi guys.

We’ve all be putting in long hours lately, but we’ve really come together as a group and I love that.
Big thanks to Omar for putting up the poster that says “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’” as well as the one that says “Hang in there, baby.” That cat is hilarious.

However, while we are fighting a jihad, we can’t forget to take care of the cave, and frankly, I have a few concerns.

First of all, while it’s good to be concerned about cruise missiles, we should be even more concerned about the scorpions in our living space. Hey, you don’t want to be stung and neither do I, so we need to sweep the cave daily. I’ve posted a sign-up sheet at the main cave opening.

Second, it’s not often I make a video address, but when I do I’m trying to scare the most powerful country on earth, okay? That means that while we’re taping please don’t ride your razor scooters in the background… just while we’re taping. Thanks.

Third point, and this is a touchy one: as you know, by edict, we’re not supposed to shave our beards. But I need everyone to just think hygiene, especially after mealtime. We’re all in this together.

Fourth, food. I bought a box of Cheez-Its recently and clearly wrote “Osama” on the front before I put it on the top shelf. Today my Cheez-Its were gone. Consideration, that’s all I’m saying.

Finally, we’ve heard that there may be American soldiers in disguise trying to infiltrate our ranks. I want to set up patrols to look for them. The first patrol will be Omar, Muhammed, Abdul, Akbar and Richard.

Love you lots.

Osama.

Something I’ve noticed since last week’s return to Madrid: leaves remain on many trees of the city’s trees. Not all, maybe not even half. But enough that some barrios still have substantial urban foliage. Much of which has been slowly turning brown or faded green, suggesting sparse precipitation during my time away. Back in October, rain arrived with the change of season — short-lived, apparently, and the city looks it.

The last two nights have been cold ones, whitening the curved roof tiles on the building across this narrow street with frost. I got myself up and out to the gym, over in the barrio of Salamanca, an area with plentiful trees, many still with greenery -– the hard frost took its toll, a good number of them were now letting go, leaves of yellow, brown and washed-out green falling gracefully to the sidewalk.

Reminded me of an October morning in Half Moon, north of Albany, N.Y., maybe twenty years back — somewhere between the 5th and the 10th of the month, deep enough into autumn that a hard frost had settled in overnight. Our land was heavily wooded, most of it old growth, trees of impressive height, thrusting themselves up toward the sky. Not far from the house — maybe a hundred feet off, halfway between the road and the garage — stood an especially tall tree, an ash or elm. It had held on to most of its leaves to that point, they’d turned a luminescent yellow, a brilliant, almost unearthly color. When I walked outside that one morning, the frost had done its work, the leaves were coming down in a steady stream of color, like a slow, funereal cascade. By midday, they’d all come down, bare branches extended upward. I’ve never forgotten that, don’t ask me why.

The Spaniards seem to be agog re: the cold weather. Not sure how come -– it’s not like they never get winter-style cold here. Far as I know, from the second half of December to the first half of February, the local climate gets plenty frigid. Went to eat at a neighborhood joint a short time ago, the TV played a lunchtime news program going on and on about last night’s temperatures, repeatedly returning to an image of a large street clock/thermometer somewhere in the area that bottomed out at -8 Celsius — somewhere in the neighborhood of 18° Fahrenheit. Footage of commentary from one or two grizzled old Spaniards also got heavy play, talking about how intense the winters used to get, pre-global-warming.

I suppose local media goes wild over weather like this in the States, as well. But this is a major, world-class city — something about Madrid’s amazement at winter putting in an appearance strikes me as being so darned cute.

It’s a golden December day –- misty air, afternoon sunlight slanting down into narrow streets. Spectacularly beautiful. Many people here keep songbirds, probably canaries. If the temperatures aren’t too cold, they leave the cages out on their balcones or just inside the balcón doors where the bird sing their hearts out. There’s something about walking down winding old-world type city streets and hearing music like that in the autumn and winter that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Went to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch today. Liked it. The first half, anyway. Four or five great songs/performances in the best rock ‘n’ roll tradition of sexual confusion/ambiguity/frustration/defiance, and some good larfs (”Our apartment was so small my mother made me play in the oven”).

Two recent scenes from the barrio:

1) Last night: went to pick up a couple of bocadillos (sandwiches on baguettes) at a local joint that puts together the best bocadillos I’ve eaten here in Madrid, and also has some pretty decent cider on tap. A shop I’ve been to many times, so it’s familiar, comfortable (in its way), and because it’s here in Chueca — Madrid’s Greenwich Village — one never knows who’ll be in attendance.

A small place, deeper than it is wide. The front room has a short, four-stool counter and space for passage to a rear room containing tables, chairs, a minute restroom. Televisions are mounted near the ceilings in both rooms, always playing channel 1, Television Española, a station with an impressive amount of authentically horrible programming.

On entry last night, all four counter stools were occupied. Two large women sat at the ends, two men sat between them. If, from left to right, the seats are numbered 1 through 4, a middle-aged gay man — shortish gray hair, glasses, grayish moustache, not looking terribly happy — sat in chair 3. He checked me out as soon as I walked in. I didn’t respond, his attention returned to the TV. The woman behind the counter said hello, took my order. The man in chair 2 — late-20’s, dark hair with the tips up on top dyed dirty blonde, wearing a down coat, dirty, faded jeans and black platform boots — sat watching the TV, chewing on his nails. His eyes met mine for a moment, I smiled then turned my attention to the woman behind the counter. The chairs were spread out, leaving me no room to get to the counter. The woman in chair no. 1 — a bit heavy-set with full lips and a pleasant face, dressed for cold weather and completely buttoned up — noticed that, murmured something to the guy in chair no. 2, reaching out and pulling his chair toward her to create room for me. I thanked her, said I was fine, and as she said something more to chair no. 2, I realized when I heard her voice that she was a he, and she was with the 20-something in chair no. 2. At the other end of the bar, the woman in chair no. 4 — taller, more stylishly dressed than chair no. 1, with long painted nails and carefully applied make-up — talked into a cellphone. Also male. I watched them all for a moment, then looked around the space, noticing a sign advertising tarot card readings on Monday through Thursday nights. In the back room, I could see three people seated at a table, realized one was reading cards for the other two. The TV played some truly awful shit. When my food was ready, I paid up and headed home. The bocadillos were excellent.

2) During an after-lunch stroll earlier today, I turned a corner onto la Calle de Fuencarral, one of the barrio’s main drags. A heavyset woman passed, probably in her 30’s, wearing a nice full-length black coat, long enough that it extended to 6-8 inches above the sidewalk. Between her full head of black hair and the coat, she gave the impression of a substantial dark mass moving down the sidewalk. Except for her footgear — snakeskin cowboy-style boots, colored a bright, mottled orange. Yowza!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Further seasonal diversion that’s made the e-mail rounds in recent years (NOTE: the same plea/disclaimer that I’ve made for those previously-posted diversions applies here — see journal entry of 12/11/2001):

THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, LEGALLY SPEAKING

Whereas, on or about the night prior to Christmas, there did occur at a certain improved piece of real property (hereinafter “the House”) a general lack of stirring by all creatures therein, including, but not limited to a mouse.

A variety of foot apparel, e.g. stocking, socks, etc., had been affixed by and around the chimney in said House in the hope and/or belief that St. Nick a/k/a St. Nicholas a/k/a Santa Claus (hereinafter “Claus”) would arrive at some time thereafter.

The minor residents, i.e., the children, of the aforementioned House were located in their individual beds and were engaged in nocturnal hallucinations, i.e. dreams, wherein visions of confectionary treats, including, but not limited to, candies, nuts and/or sugar plums, did dance, cavort, caper and otherwise appear in said dreams.

Whereupon the party of the first part (sometimes hereinafter referred to as “I”), being the joint-owner in fee simple of the House with the parts of the second part (hereinafter “Mamma”), and said Mamma had retired for a sustained period of sleep. (At such time, the parties were clad in various forms of headgear, e.g. kerchief and cap.)

Suddenly, and without prior notice or warning, there did occur upon the unimproved real property adjacent and appurtenant to said House, i.e. the lawn, a certain disruption of unknown nature, cause and/or circumstance. The party of the first part did immediately rush to a window in the House to investigate the cause of such disturbance.

At that time, the party of the first part did observe, with some degree of wonder and/or disbelief, a miniature sleigh (hereinafter “the Vehicle”) being pulled and/or drawn very rapidly through the air by approximately eight (8) reindeer. The driver of the Vehicle appeared to be, and in fact was, the previously referenced Claus.

Said Claus was providing specific direction, instruction and guidance to the approximately eight (8) reindeer and specifically identified the animal co-conspirators by name: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen (hereinafter “the Deer”). (Upon information and belief, it is further asserted that an additional co-conspirator named “Rudolph” may have been involved.)

The party of the first part witnessed Claus, the Vehicle and the Deer intentionally and willfully trespass upon the roofs of several residences located adjacent to and in the vicinity of the House, and noted that the Vehicle was heavily laden with packages, toys and other items of unknown origin or nature. Suddenly, without prior invitation or permission, either express or implied, the Vehicle arrived at the House, and Clause entered said House via the chimney.

Said Claus was clad in red vestments, which were partially covered with residue from the chimney, and he carried a large sack containing a portion of the aforementioned packages, toys and other unknown items. He was smoking what appeared to be tobacco in a small pipe in blatant violation of local ordinances and health regulations.

Claus did not speak, but immediately began to fill the stockings of the minor children, which hung adjacent to the chimney, with toys and other small gifts. (Said items did not, however, constitute “gifts” to said minor pursuant to the applicable provisions of the U.S. Tax Code.)

Upon completion of such task, Claus touched the side of his nose and flew, rose and/or ascended up the chimney of the House to the roof where the Vehicle and Deer waited and/or served as “lookouts.” Claus immediately departed for an unknown destination.

However, prior to the departure of the Vehicle, Deer and Claus from said House, the party of the first part did hear Clause state and/or exclaim: “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

Or words to that effect.

Respectfully submitted,

s./ The Grinch

Gee, life’s been exciting lately.

First, there was the month back in the States — nonstop thrills, from packing up an apartment to rendezvousing with far too many people in far too many places (some of whom shared far too many previously unknown details about dark corners of their lives) to hosting two Irishmen who made the trip over during my last week there to help with the move.

As if that weren’t enough action, I made the trip back to Madrid by way of Paris (maybe the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen), where I managed to leave my bathroom kit in the hotel room when I bolted. Got back here, addled by lack of sleep. The second night back, left the apartment without my keys, locking myself out (not something you want to do in a building with no portero or other individual who might have keys to the various pisos; my landlords live outside Madrid somewhere, their number was in my phonebook, in the piso — the one I was locked out of). Luckily I hadn’t locked the door, only pulled it shut — I found neighbors who knew how to pop the lock, we broke into my place together. Jubilation.

The days are scooting by. I’m writing, I’m making plans for next week’s holiday return to the States. Today I left the apartment to pick up a couple of newspapers, when I got back the lock refused to respond to my key. Simply refused. I found a locksmith who showed up and spent a half hour figuring out the problem, ultimately diagnosing a broken pin deep within the lock. After filing off a bit of the end of the key, he let me back into my home.

So far, for a guy whose Spanish ranks only one or two notches above the primitive, I’m doing a decent job of averting catastrophes.

More Yuletide entertainment that has made its way around the net in recent years (As with the other examples of this kind of silliness I’ve posted in the last week, I have never seen an author’s name attached to this bugger. Should someone out there feel like claiming authorship — and can prove it — please take the example of Kris Kringle to heart and GIVE me a chance to provide proper attribution or, alternatively, remove the offending bit of diversion from this webpage before you try to sic an attorney on me. I grovel with appreciation in advance for your thoughtfulness and consideration.):

WALKIN’ ‘ROUND IN WOMEN’S UNDERWEAR

(to be sung to the tune of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”)

Lacy things the wife’s missin’,

Didn’t ask her permission,

I’m wearin’ her clothes,

Her silk pantyhose,

Walkin’ ’round in women’s underwear.

In the store there’s a teddy,

Little straps like spaghetti,

It holds me so tight

Like handcuffs at night,

Walkin’ ’round in women’s underwear.

In the office there’s a guy named Melvin,

He pretends that I am Murphy Brown.

He’ll say, “Are you ready?” I’ll say, “Whoa, man!

Let’s wait until our wives are out of town!”

Later on, if you wanna,

We can dress like Madonna,

Put on some eyeshade

And join the parade,

Walkin’ ’round in women’s underwear.

Walkinnnn’ ’round in womennnnnn’s underweaaaar!

An overcast December afternoon in Madrid, breaks in the clouds providing tantalizing glimpses of blue sky, muffled sunlight.

As they do periodically, the City sent out a crew to clear the posters off the wall across the street. First thing this morning (meaning, in local terms, somewhere around 10 a.m.), a pump truck materialized, they got to work. Between manual scraping and spraying of pressurized water, the entire length of wall on this street got cleared off by lunchtime, looking, well, not virginal exactly, but chaste. As immaculate as something that’s endured countless generations of local advertising wars can get. Down to basic gray and black, nary a speck of paper visible, at least along this street’s stretch of the structure. A three-or-so-meter length extends around the corner, completely be-postered ["Shakira -- la nueva CD, ya a la venta" ('the new CD, now on sale'); "Sauna Men -- para gente joven" ('for young people' -- that accompanied by an image of muscular, highly-chiseled black guy from the waist up, the poster getting its message across without stooping to subtlety]. They left that alone.

I headed off to lunch shortly before two. An hour later, fully one-third of the cleared wall had been reclaimed by a solid block of posters. How the Spaniards got hung with a reputation for laziness is beyond me. They are as industrious as all get-out when they put their minds to something.

One of the first harbingers of Christmas here is the annual fair in la Plaza Mayor. The plaza: an immense cobblestone courtyard, enclosed by a huge, four-sided building, built in a restrained Baroque style. (Restrained because the era’s King/Church wouldn’t allow anything as expressive as unrestrained Baroque.) A focal point of tourism — during the warm season, many of the cafés, tapas joints and watering holes that line the building’s ground floor fill large swaths of the cobblestoned ground with tables and chairs. Off to one side, populist art (caricature-style portraits, variations of the Elvis-on-black-velvet school of painting and pastels) does its best to generate revenue, at other points around the plaza musicians and dancers (flamenco, tango) of various skill levels carry on. When the calendar turns to the early days of December, long rows of booths fill the plaza’s space, festooned with strings of white lights, appearing like a sizeable craft fair. Around the plaza’s perimeter, vendors sell Christmas trees and food, street entertainers hold forth. The general atmosphere: festive, crowded, bustling.

Last year, a woman I was dating hauled me downtown one evening to get an eyeful of the Christmastime version of the plaza. It’s an institution, the fair — well attended, that night, by Madrileños out to get the holiday season hooha underway.

The crowded streets that surround and feed into La Plaza Mayor are narrow and winding, medieval style — at times contrasting strangely with the shops that line them, a melange of old-style businesses, bars, cafeterías, fast-food franchises. It’s a great scene, especially if one is not bothered by having to walk at a slower pace than one might hanker for. (Madrileños often exhibit a tendency to take up as much of the sidewalk, stairway or walkway as they can, moving at a speed that’s in sharp contrast with their general tempo when, for instance, they’re behind the wheel of a car. In the Metro, as a train pulls into a station, on-board passengers get up and crowd around the doors well before the train comes to a standstill, positioning themselves to get out first so they can hustle to the stairs where they then spread out and slow down. I can’t say what’s actually going on with that, but it sometimes comes across as a communal display of passive-aggression.)

As we neared the plaza, the crowd intensified, squeezing together to pass through an archway into the plaza itself where the whole scene spread itself out before us, looking and feeling pretty fine. I took a moment to gaze around as people flowed by, then headed with Victoria for the rows of booths. Expecting something akin to the holiday craft fairs that have become commonplace in the States, what I found was a whole different thing.

The booths come in essentially four different varieties: three different versions of Christmas ornaments/doodads/tchotchkes (one dealing mostly in religious items, two dealing in more secular Christmas paraphernalia — ornaments, toy trains, etc.) and one dealing in joke items — wigs, goofy fake spectacles, plastic vomit, all that. And that was it. Those four types of booths, repeated over and over and over, vending essentially the same wares, up and down each aisle.

Once the lack of variation became apparent, the thrill rapidly wore off. Times like that, I truly get how different this culture is from the one I grew up in.

But the street entertainers were fun and the rest of the city center provided plenty of Christmas lights, crowds, decorations, and the normal staggering overabundance of places to eat and drink. Plus, I had good company to share it with.

Madrid, romance, the holidays — not a bad combo.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It’s now 5:30, well past the end of Madrid’s lengthy lunch hour. The city crew has not returned to take on the rest of the wall. I’ll be curious to see if they have the will to show up tomorrow and finish what is clearly a futile job.

Well, I’ll freely admit it — I love the holiday season. I do, I can’t help it. I love the way lights and decorations gradually transform streets and entire neighborhoods. I enjoy the quickening of the pace of life. I like the way parties and seasonal events pop up everywhere. I love giving and receiving gifts, I enjoy sending cards — the key to those last two items may be that I generally give gifts and send cards only to people I really want to give/send to. Meaning far less now than in years past. One result of that: the number of cards coming in has fallen sharply, especially now that my living sitch has begun hopping all over the map. And that’s fine. The cards that make it through are generally from people who really want to make sure I get them. And some now arrive via e-mail, which works just as well for me.

The number of gifts I pass out has also dwindled, now mostly items I genuinely want to give, given to people I truly want to give ‘em to. I have little biological family left, the connections between us aren’t currently very strong, so the gifts that find their way to me are minimal. Which feels just fine. I appreciate the thought and effort behind what actually shows up.

I like the look of the light this time of the year, I like the snap to the air. I like the way people dress in response to the changing weather, to the coming holidays. I like seasonal craft fairs and rummage sales, I like wandering through places like that with friends. I like that people become more mindful re: some of the more important aspects of existence — making each other happy, enjoying the day, letting others know what they mean to us.

The Christmas season’s all right with me. I know there are circles where an admission like that is akin to admitting cretinism, but there it is.

Went out for a late lunch a couple of hours back, wound up at a slightly upscale joint a block away. This barrio has a strange mix of funky and chic — many eating establishments have been around for years in one form or another, feeling like mom & pop outfits,or something not far from that. Today’s did not have the mom & pop feel — too slick in a polished-metal way. Decent food, decent atmosphere, decent wait staff. A TV mounted over the entrance plays local programming, sound off, while a bizarre mix of music gets piped in.

The the tunes that accompanied my meal:
Thunderball — Tom Jones;
Stuck In The Middle With You — Stealers Wheel;
Monday, Monday — the Mamas and Papas;
an ersatz-jazzy, Vegas-style arrangement of Michael, Row The Boat Ashore
(I am not making that up) sung by God knows who;
Under The Milky Way — The Church.

Hard to know what to make of that blend of tunes.

Saw a Spanish film yesterday, a documentary titled “En Construcción” (”Under Construction”). Filmed over a three-year period in and around a major construction project in an old neighborhood of Barcelona, chronicling the destruction of numerous old buildings, the subsequent construction of large blocks of flats, the impact on the area. Linear in a very, very loose way. Visually beautiful — painterly, even. But long. Long, long, long. It takes its time, which was fine for the first two hours. At 2-1/2 hours, the winding-down point, I was beginning to catch up on much-needed sleep.

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