December 1, 2012 Saturday
May and I both, separately, hum-bugged our way past the holidays of 2011. I was wrapping up my student teaching at the time, while she let Christmas slip by without notice. While hiking with May in August, however, I learned that Christmas has always far-and-away been her favorite. We sensed, even then, that the still-distant Season would be greeted with much greater enthusiasm this time ‘round.
In honor of the papers and projects my students were either hurriedly slapped together late last night, or blowing off entirely , here is my entry in a similar style:
Title: “How to Celebrate Christmas as You Sweat”
Purpose: Show one of St. Louis’ many distinct, diverse neighborhoods, Cherokee Street
Thesis: Holidays are a state of mind.
1. Be sure you dress appropriately for the winter chill.
May at the door, I rushed down my apartments stairs, thrilled to begin our long and celebratory Christmas month. She was clad in a very May-ish black sweater with slumpy collar, and a white winter vest, and a stellar smile.
“Happy… December?” I greeted her, unsure if I had slept through to Memorial Day. Maybe those scientists that came out with a new warming warning are on to something.
2. Spice your ‘nog up with a festive community outing.
Perhaps go to Cherokee Street’s Christmas Cookie Spree, that Will saw advertised in the local bookseller’s store window in Grand. Looked legit from the flyer! Winding our way through the blacktopped veins of St. Louis in her VW, May told me her mother’s own subbing stories, of students that slashed her tires in lieu of giving an apple. Somehow we missed Cherokee Street and would have to make another large pass around the city. Conversation had been a distraction, it was declared, so it was silent time.
Agreed, no more talking.
“Don’t reach over here either–that’s not going to help anything!” cried May, swinging onto the interstate.
If Cherokee Street had been entire the United States during the 2012 election, Obama could have also stayed on his porch, 1896 William McKinley-style, and Mitt Romney would have been sent out of town, strapped to the roof a lime-green Jetta. The eight blocks that make up the district are split between, first, a coalition of hipster’s hangouts and a burgeoning barrio along the western two-thirds, and a pertinacious mix of art galleries and overpriced coffee experimentations on its eastern third. As couples walked the lively strip of faded, colorful storefronts, we wondered if the Cookie Spree had sprung. Finally finding a cookie stand, the offerings of sweets and hot cider did not tantalize on this balmy 68-degree morning. “No, thanks!” we demurred cheerfully, secure that our Christmas spirit could not be exorcised.
Yet I glimpsed something promising ahead. Hammond Antiques and Books was a marvel upon entering, volumes crammed to the ceilings along narrow walkways. May drew my attention to the presidential selections (Wilson analyzed by Freud?!), while she salivated over a massive Irish medical encyclopedia. We quickly realized all of these books were outside of our ownership, a slim collection of children’s poetry by A.A. Milne fetching $300.00. Myself already gifted with guilt to take tree ornaments, a frazzled owner approached May. “Would you like any wine or sherry,” she asked at eleven-thirty in the morning. May indicted the time of day in her reply. When coffee was suggested, May was awesome with a curt ‘We’ll find you.’ Like a heroin addiction, the euphoria first experienced began to crack into trepidation and regret. “Sherry?… May I offer some some sherry?” was overheard by a floating voice amid the book stacks. We escaped to hopefully a less-crowded upstairs, finding ourselves in a back room devoted to the self-help works May’s dad loves, and the worst poster collection ever.
“Wine! Sherry!” a be-shnickered gypsy called with volume to May at eleven in the morning. “An author will be here to sign a book!” Dodging into side pockets of long-forgotten works, we realized we had stumbled into the Mad Book Party. Declining a drink and deferring to the stumbling traffic, we exited with relief back onto Cherokee.
The art store we sampled was trying to copyright kitsch, filled with holiday nostalgia lights, leftover set pieces from Beetlejuice, and, let’s say, paintings of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse characters. The far end of Cherokee warped back to the 1920s: an imposing brick relic, the Lemp brewery, towering overhead. The tiled letters spelling out of the owner’s name struck me as Citizen Kane-esque.
3.Indulge in food fit for the theme (and Fahrenheit) of the day.
Roast duck and cranberry sauce may be called for by December tradition, but there was plenty of excellent Mexican fare to compliment the Acapulco weather. I suggested La Vellasana, remembering my student Jose’s recommendation. We, like the other clientele, chose to sit outside on this the first day of December.
“What do you think you’ll get?” May asked. There was a great deal to chose from, but was going for the vegetarian quesadilla, as something light. “Me too,” she said with nonplussed amazement. Being the time of good cheer, when the wait staff is slow or does not bring utensils until it is time for the check, take in all in stride, as we did. We filled our time instead of New England talk. I’m still not sure what sites I’d like to visit in Boston, but I would make a stop-off in Roxbury. May will take me first to Watch Hill, Rhode Island, just south of her she grew up, and to all of her childhood locales, which I cannot wait to see. Our imagined destinations tended to be reclusive: an island excursion, and a simple walk on New Year’s Eve. The meal was tasty and worth the wait, but I plowed ahead with the task, unencumbered with forks or knives. Yet we felt lucky to be noticed in our corner at all, so many waiting glumly or leaving entirely.
4. Holidays can get jealous, so get rid of past ones before moving onto new days.
I discovered May’s “Special Moments Graveyard” (my term) on her back porch when taking the dogs outside. The going-home cake that was supposed to accompany us for Thanksgiving had fossilized across the room, while the Halloween pumpkin had deflated to a tortured, withering gel on the table. “Kill me…” it wheezed to me. May seized on the moment and went for bags. “Oh, it’s oozing!” she moaned. The smell emanating from the dissolved bottom gave her new strength, and soon both cake and jack-o-lantern were in the alley. Now to see how long the Christmas tree will be around…
5. Make time for family
My phone rang, showing “Home.” It was Dad.
“I have a question,” he started off with a classic refrain. “Who do you have in the big time today, Wisconsin or Nebraska, for the Big Ten National Championship? And is this a new game?”
“Uh, it’s been played for many years. I’ll take…Wisconsin,” I guess.
“Okay, I accept that. But what does this mean?”
“I just don’t follow college very much,” I truthfully told him.
“Bein’ I’m retired, I can,” he rejoined.
“I don’t really know. Wish I did.”
“So…” my father broaden the topic, “if you win the Big Ten, do you go to the National Championship?” He was quizzing me. Football prognosticating went on for a while, until it took a less secular slant.
“So Joshua and the Israelites, what did they speak?” he asked. Content with Hebrew as an answer, the next question from my father was, “When did the English language begin?” That took more than a moment to tackle. Moving to food, Dad asked, “Do you marinade in hot sauce?” And finally he was wondering if I would be driving to Elmwood to get his Christmas tree.
“No, probably not. Elmwood’s a good three hours north of here. I know a good tree place two and a half hours from St. Louis, tops.”
It soon became clear however that Dad just wanted to chat as partly a distraction from Nicole’s ongoing drama of poor decisions. “She’s saying she’s leaving tomorrow,” Dad said sadly. “For North Dakota again.” Or not. Perhaps. If she feels like it. That’s part of the emotional pull and tug going on a home, with a younger sister that can’t decide exactly when she’s going to do the opposite of what she should. She hadn’t told Mom herself yet. More than once Dad railed against giving her so much as “a dime.” The entire situation he found “stupid,” but he clearly is a loss now of how to help. I took a step towards helping the mess, in saying the usually unsaid: thanking him for calling, and understanding sometimes you need to talk these difficult moments out with people, and I was glad he did.
Then it was game time for Wisconsin and Nebraska. “Say hello for May,” he said before the click.
The conversation, as Carlson things can, had but a damper on our mistletoe momentum.
“Maybe we should just wait for another day,” a dejected May questioned.
“No, I said firmly, “we’re going to find a great Douglas fir, decorate it, and sing carols (well, I’ll hum, anyway). Okay? Because it doesn’t matter it doesn’t matter if the tree turns burns down on Christmas day, I’d be putting it out with you. And that’s all that matters.”
6. Claim your annual, natural shrine to Christmas, the tree.
7. Sing a classic yuletide song on your way.
If your companion holds a personal grudge against the tune (“Santa Baby,” perhaps) don’t despair if the volume is muted by rage. Claim ignorance of how it goes until she has suing at least half of the song. Come to a mutual understanding that “lips and genitals should be kept away from St. Nick.” He has presents to deliver, people.
8. Be sure to pick out the perfect decorations for trimming.
Bulbs and lights were found easily in a Home Depot a few blocks away.
9. Be festive-selective.
Ted Drew’s famous frozen custard stand only got a drive-by, for lack of parking and general riotousness. Plan B was Bayer’s Garden Shop on Hampton, now the hunt for a tree. Looking more promising, we strolled and debated for a fair amount of time the best of the banged up bunch. Then May saw a price tag.
“That tree was a hundred dollars—and it’s dead!” she exclaimed as we went back to the drawing board. “How was that not a misprint?”
The third stop was at Home Depot. Worth a shot. Fir after fir was inspected, until I think the sap started to get to us. “Fine, great,” May said flatly, to a tree she had previously nixed. Suddenly we found it. The green lushness of the pines stood out to me. “How about it?” I asked. It seemed immediately right, and May agreed. “That’s a keeper!” a customer shouted nearby. We had our tree. Funny enough, the Home Depot workers treated it like magic, not recognizing it or ever hearing of a Grand Fir. Somehow we put it shoved through the back of May’s car, and even more amazingly birthed it with a combination of my pulling and May’s leg presses. Weary from the extraction, I began to drudge it up Tim’s door.
10. Reflect on the meaning of Christmas
Now dark, it was time to set off for Belleville, Illinois and the Lady of the Snows, where millions of tiny lights would simulate an electric path to Bethlehem. On the we passed Larry Flynt’s Hustler’s Club and flashing patrol cars. Yet once the tight lines of cars thinned we could roll down the windows and enjoy the humbling, spiritual spectacle. I wouldn’t want to do the boxing up afterwards, I know that.
Most importantly, make it about those you love around you, making it a time of peace and togetherness. Then you can think back on the high humidity, drunken revelers, la comida tarde, and blatant exploitation, and sigh at a wonder time you had with someone who can back you up that it all really happened.
Several blocks to the northeast, in my Tower Grove East neighborhood a confused Payton the cat poked his head around a corner. “Didn’t I once have an owner?”