Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Cheer

This year I got smart. I used the internet to search good deals on fresh trees in Manhattan. Only every single entry suggested somewhere in Queens or Staten Island. Tough for those of us with a UK driver’s license and no car.

Then there’s Home Depot….$30 for the tree, $75 for the delivery. Unless you’re buying a new dishwasher. Then it’s half price. A typical NYC bargain. So I enlisted someone to drive me out there. Not a single tree left. Some needles and a sign in the parking lot where they were. It looked like December 27th.

In my hood they’ve got one of those stalls on Lexington… the wreaths and ribbons, the stand, the huge LED sign across the fence reminding us---canned corny Christmas music blaring from mounted speakers….trees divided by the little heated house—one side the Douglas firs and the cheapies…the other side the balsams…$100 and up. Around the corner a few rejects chained to a wooden post like old horses, waiting it out. The yellow-tags. A tall one in there… no branches in the mid-section, losing its needles—my kind of tree. I offer to take it off their hands. 'Seventy bucks,' the man with the graying ponytail informs me. He can see from my coat that I’m not bidding on a balsam, but he resents everyone in Manhattan. After all he’s wearing an orange jumpsuit and selling Christmas trees on a street corner. Inside the house the guys have ordered take-out. Sushi. I guess tips are good.

I turn and wait it out.

December 21. Actually December 22nd…2 AM. The reject pile is growing. It’s the coldest night of the year. Wind…freezing rain. The night shift is asleep in the pickup. My son suggested he could pick them off and no one would notice. I give him the look. They’re fucking TREES, he snaps. And somewhere he’s right. These are offerings of nature. Someone cut them down in their prime, and is now asking to be paid for such an offense. He should be punished.

But I’m still a buyer. And the guy knows I’m a beggar. I can’t use the ‘I’ll take it off your hands’ approach. I can’t imply it’s for a poor family who can’t afford it, because that’s the truth, and it’s for us.

I knock lightly on the cab window. The guy opens his eyes, rolls the window dow about an inch. 'I told you yesterday,' his look says…'I can get $75 for that tree.' He is not getting out of a warm truck for the likes of me.

The overnight crosstown bus passes me…driver stops and calls out. Many nights he and I are alone on this bus when I come from work. He greets me… 'Would you be willing to let me on this bus with a tree?' 'Mama—for you? Anything!' he assures me. Merry Christmas.

I move on. The Second Avenue Subway-construction mess has pretty much wrecked business for the vendors there….but from a funky old bar, the smell of Christmas as a few college-aged kids spill out onto the street. They are heading uptown. I approach them…'Anybody know where I can buy a reasonable tree in this neighborhood?' 'Sure,' they say. 'Up around 104th. We’ll walk you.' So off we go uptown. They are from New Hampshire…good kids… at 101st they turn off and I’m on my own. The streets are deserted except a couple of homeless guys collecting cardboard and cans.

The blocks are long… across the street is the Projects…colored lights everywhere. I wonder if Benefit Cards buy trees. Lights. Anyway, at 103rd, I catch sight of a row of evergreen… tall, great trees… both sides of the sidewalk. A white guy with a southern accent in a grungy old parka comes out…a beard…my age…grey. Tall. I ask him about prices…$55, he tells me… $45 over here. Literally one fourth of the ones at Lexington. I pick out a 9-footer—- thin, but great bone structure. How about $40? 'Done,' he says. Merry Christmas. Saws off the end, wraps it up, and shows me how to balance it across my arms. If I can make it to the crosstown, I’m home free.

But this is tough work. Suddenly…across the street, I hear a rhythmic tapping sound in the silent night. There on the projects playground, a boy… 2:30 AM…in the freezing mist, the slippery pavement.. in sweats and a hoodie…his parka hooked onto the fence-links, shooting…dribbling… dodging… back and forth.. rebounding, hooking, weaving..around his invisible defender ..jumping… his breath in bursts of mist... Suddenly I had a jolt…—like the thrill might be gone everywhere… but here it is on this deserted,freezing icy 2 AM court. A kid, feeling the Kobe Bryant rush…..not a soul watching…...maybe he won’t make it but he is dreaming about it…... that feeling... 11 days off from school and it's the first night... and Christmas coming and you might get something.. Knicks tickets…Jordans. I could have stood there all night... but I had to carry my tree home.

And suddenly I had the strength of an old Atlas. With the scent of pine in my frozen nostrils, I walked back and all the way up the crosstown hill. Busdriver honked as he passed. I was home free, just like those dumb Walton old-style holiday films. Me and the tree. The kid and his basketball. Oh spirit of Santa, I think, as I drape my old strands of colored lights on my still freezing symbol of holiday and Vermont nature…bring that kid something good. Bring him a future-- a winning shot,--the never-ending dream of Christmas. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The 'Santa' Clause

Looking on my windowsills, how many more cards can I count with someone’s cute kid sitting on Santa’s lap rattling off the toys they’re expecting? Or these days, a little person with a kid-blackberry texting his list.

Just waiting on Macy’s massive snaking Santa-line should tip off any young believer that no celestial sleigh could hold enough toys to satisfy this pre-noon store crowd, let alone all the children in the world. But kids at Christmas choose not to think logically; or maybe they know they’ll get more from the grown-ups by playing innocent just a little longer. Whatever. Despite the thousands of Santas everywhere in Manhattan alone, kids are still making a list and checking it twice.

There ought to be a few rules….like if it doesn’t fit through the chimney, it’s probably not a reasonable request. Like an SUV…or a sailboat. A polar bear. These aren’t Santa-esque gifts.

Last year I was surprised more mortgage brokers weren’t dressed up as Santa Claus, holding court in real estate offices, enticing first-time buyers to come sit on their lap and read aloud the qualities of their dream-house. Because a ton of these Santa-mortgages were stuffed down the financial chimneys of homeowners who couldn’t possibly have accommodated such instruments.

So my question this year is: where is the Santa ‘clause’? The 5-year warranty or guarantee that this overstuffed gift is going to be serviced, maintained and supported by the giver? Did any kid get an internet-ready device with the broadband pre-paid? A new phone with the plan already in place? The Santa clause instead seems to imply that once dropped down the chimney---’no backs’.

Same with the mortgages. Now that these Christmas dreamhouse payments have ballooned, where is Santa? How many homeowners in default are waiting on line at Macy’s for the disguised real-estate elf who last year patted their cheek and shook their hand and went off to prepare the paperwork which awarded them an enormous palace that couldn’t fit down 20 chimneys? But they believed in Santa Claus. They believed in America and the reindeer and burned the 2006 Yulelog and bought their kids even bigger presents to go in their super-sized new rooms. Some of them bought extra vehicles to go in the new huge garage. A friend of mine got a pool. Unfortunately he lives in Georgia where global warming irregularities have caused an unprecedented and worrisome water shortage which disallows shower use on odd days, and mandates that all pools remain empty. But the Santa clause prevents him from complaining. No returns on pools. Like ice-skates. No one guarantees the lakes will freeze. Make your own ice.

For those of you who asked Santa for money last year, your 2006 gift is now worth even less. But 'No backs,' says the Santa clause. The government will take your house, though. They’ll take it and give you bad credit in exchange. What kind of clause is that?

In fact the Santa clause may indirectly take away my personal tax money or lower interest rates once again in favor of the banks. Merry Christmas 2007. Which makes me a loser for trying to save money. Interest rates on my savings account don’t even keep up with rising milk prices. A penny saved is still a penny? Barely. In England it isn’t even worth a half-penny. At the grocery, cashiers used to disallow Canadian coins. Now they want them.

So think twice about what you wish for while sitting on the lap of a man with a fake beard and a padded red suit who is probably working on commission and needs the money. Maybe you’re better off going to church and putting some coins in the collection plate for starving children and thanking God that you are going to any home to sit by the Yule log and read the traditional version of the Santa Claus story which you can buy very cheaply for your children in any bookstore under ‘Fiction’.

Oh. I almost forgot to wish you a Merry Christmas. And drive carefully, Santa.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Pink Christmas

I left MTV on while I was working. Or maybe it was VH1. There used to be a difference. A point of view. Now of course there is no music on either one unless it is 3 AM which is when I work. The rest of the programming day is endless repeats of reality shows. And previews of reality shows to come. Point of view? Another column.

Suddenly one of the lyrics somehow pierced my field-of-listening: Farewell to Mediocrity. I smiled with acknowledgment of something between irony and humor before I had the opportunity to check the visual which was another aged 25-30 male generic post-emo band treading the stagnant tepid audio waters along with the other hoardes of clueless band-members in dark clothing like shipwrecked flailing contestants for Survival in a virtual sea of regurgitated mediocrity.

Anyway, by the time the sun came up I felt as though I’d overdosed on M&Ms. The blue ones. I took a shower to wash off the residue of mediocrity and somehow in the frigid air of my prewar bathroom without heat, I had one of those lyrical flashbacks from childhood: The North Wind doth blow,/ and we shall have snow…/and what will poor robin do then,/ poor thing? /She’ll sit in the barn /to keep herself warm /and tuck her head under her wing,/ poor thing.

This being a pre-mediocrity memory, I was actually moved. I remembered toddler-staring at the picture in the book of this freezing bird even though everyone knows robins fly south in winter and as a future editor I should have been thinking 'how did they get away with this?' But I actually felt myself tearing up in the old shower. Not just nostalgia. I remembered I was born with sympathy, with compassion, with an uncanny ability to cry.

These days if you cry, you are branded like Ellen deGeneres on that show as a quasi-psycho or an unmedicated menopausal casualty or-- like Oprah-- a sexual-abuse survivor. Your friends squirm and your doctor tells you ‘You deserve to be happy’, and hands you a prescription for Paxil or Zoloft.

So have we given up the privilege of crying along with our post-9/11 unalienable rights? Have we traded sympathy for suspicion? When they renovated the Statue of Liberty did they leave the inscription, the ‘Give me your tired, your poor…send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me’ even though it now should read ‘Give me your Investment Bankers and your thick-walleted tourists, your outsourced computer-literate who are willing to perform sophisticated programming jobs for less-than minimum wage, your leggy Eastern-European athletes and models who enhance our magazine covers and sports teams, your Dubai-based oil-barons and billionaires who are buying up American hotels and department stores and real estate like Christmas trinkets?

Last night when I came in, this homeless guy was shivering outside my building. Standing in the bus shelter which offers no shelter, just a backlit half-naked model. A kind of warmth. So after a cup of hot tea I rummaged through my closet and found a thick woolen man’s sweater. A nice one. A warm one I wear on cold mornings. Clean. I took it down to him and tried not to look him in the eye, tried not to expect gratitude. He looked at it with suspicion. It’s clean, I said. In the morning it was covered with newspaper and crushed Starbucks cups and plastic-wrapped dogshit in the public trashcan. I guess some things are too far gone. Maybe it was like offering a band-aid to someone with a gushing gunshot wound. Maybe it was condescending and heartless.

But I wanted that sweater. I loved that sweater. I want to cry for that sweater but I can’t let my neighbors see me rummaging through the public garbage. My investment-banker neighbor upstairs who caused a massive flood in my ceiling and owes me the $1600 it cost me to repair it one year later. It took me one year to put aside that money, living with cardboard and construction tape and dust and debris raining every time someone walked upstairs. One year of cutting back on our $10-a-day rule in our no-vacation, no-takeout, no-movies and no-debt life. Of inconspicuously taking the excess bread from a local restaurant so I can save money on my little contribution to the homeless mother and daughter who bathe in our local Starbucks bathroom every day. Who annoy people in line because they ask for a cup of hot water and pay a quarter. I don’t care if they’re scamming people as my rich neighbors claim. They’re cold. The tired and the poor. Saying that makes me cry. Info-mercials make me cry. Tonight I might cry because I can’t afford a tree this year. Even a skinny near-dead one like last year. Because I can’t afford to tip the nice doormen and porters the investment-banker/new tenants in my building insist on, to receive their packages and dry cleaning. The doormen who earn maybe three times what I earn, even though my neighbor doesn’t know this.

I wanted that sweater not just because it meant something to me, but because I need it. I might cry for that sweater but I can’t let my investment-banker neighbor-- the one who earns and spends seven figures—-I can’t let him see me because then he’ll never pay me. That’s the warped socioeconomics of our time and in some strange way the same reason the homeless guy threw the sweater in the trash in the first place.

So if a fictional robin freezes in a barn, and no one sees, no one even reads the poem because the books are obsolete and tears are only a sign of mental illness, what is contemporary compassion? I-sharing music on myspace? Pink the pop-star has a new video of a live stadium performance of ‘Dear Mr. President’. Even though it is VHI or MTV and it is 5AM when no sane human is actually watching or listening, the photos behind her are perhaps unretouched. See them and weep.

Merry Christmas, Pink.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

All Men Created Random

I’ve been noticing lately an enormous spike in the frequency of occurrence of the word ‘random’. In news articles, on television. Politically--- it is becoming a catch-all, an excuse-word—a generic non-response when the speaker chooses not to incriminate himself with details. ‘Some random restaurant’ he had lunch in…’some random man on the street’ he’d canvassed. And of course, in an election year, we are given more than our daily fill of ‘random’ polls and surveys, implying a non-effort to non-target any one group or strata. Which also implies that each sampled opinion has an absolutely equal opportunity to be solicited. Like lotto numbers; although anyone who has studied gambling odds is well aware that all numbers, however random, are not exactly created equally on the board of chance. In fact, a recent UK survey shows the number ‘38’ appears in the National Lottery with nearly 50% greater frequency than the number 20. Figure that one out.

But most of all, in daily, colloquial conversation, random seems maybe to be replacing the obsolescing word ‘dude’. My son uses it on the cellphone when I attempt to ascertain his whereabouts. He is in some random store, or on some random street-corner. When I ask him who he is taking to 'some' party, the quick response is some random girl, on either side of which is the implied ‘none of your f—ing business’.

A man shoving his way onto a rush-hour 4 train today asked one of the people crammed halfway into the doorway to get his random-ass on the f---ing train. Ah, I thought. This man is acquainted with my son.

And it’s not as though this is a new concept. Many cab-drivers in New York City seem to select the random route between two points. The IRS apparently uses random selection rather than probability to verify our tax returns. Apparently to the detriment of us poor tax-paying slobs because we pay the salaries of the IRS auditors who do not always come up with money which justifies their efforts. But according to the papers today, a rather conspicuous and successful restaurateur had failed to pay a massive tax bill and was randomly ignored until another government employee was paid with additional tax money to investigate this rather huge and blatant evasion. And ironically, while pocketing his payroll and sales taxes, along with under-reported profits he was also pocketing generous small-business post-9/11 grants which were being given out a bit too randomly.

In several recent mass-murder scenarios, the gunmen shot at apparently random victims whose families now find themselves overwhelmed with the horrific, tragic and unspeakably random sentence of grief for the holidays.

Regarding our upcoming elections, one wonders whether the same polled random selection of the population will actually vote, and whether they will vote deliberately and with intelligence or will be unaquainted with many candidates because they were busy watching reruns of ‘Tila Tequila—A Shot at Love’ and will merely hit random levers in the booth because one or two names sound familiar.

At random moments during the day, I find myself terrified by the prospect of not only random errors in the electoral process which will irreversibly affect the course of history, but also random incidents which might catastrophically affect our world. Hurricane Katrina destroyed my friend’s home in New Orleans, while on either side, the houses seemed miraculously or randomly undamaged. One begins to wonder.

And mathematically, we are told that patterns that seem random because they are more complex than the average brain can comprehend, are actually pseudorandom.
I love this word and can imagine it becoming the new ‘rad’ which I secretly suspect is some abbreviated form of random.

In fact, as I see it, the epidemic of apathy and entitlement in America has created a new culture which, rather than seeking responsibility for such phenomena as weather or poverty or cancer, is now putting them into the rather innocent white dress of random.

Could it be a conspiracy? I just opened a book I was sent to review and noted ironically it was published by Random House. Is that why I found it insipid and not worth reading? Will I awaken and find New York City has been renamed City of Random? Sounds more credible than Duane Reade. Less ‘calculated’.

So as I see it, random is the new whiteface, the new cover-up for calculated and intentionally premeditated, pseudorandom acts for which no one wants to take responsibility in this new society of the Entitled-but-all-too-often-Clueless. Perhaps George Bush should have had his boys out looking for Weapons of Random Destruction in Iran. Maybe we should amend our prayer-books to ask God’s protection from not just the evil and unfortunate, but random acts of the universe.

And before long, expect the next person who serves you your Big Mac or Starbucks venti to be wearing a nametag that says ‘Random’. Totally.