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Oh God, It’s Christmas: Yule Laugh, Yule Cry

A White Christmas
BY FRANK OWEN

It was a Christmas that only Sid and Nancy could have loved. Two newlyweds — one a British music critic, the other an aspiring model from Detroit — were shacked up in a former welfare hotel indulging a bohemian fantasy of Yuletide spent without any of the traditional trappings (families, gifts, religion), but with plenty of drugs.

The year was 1988. The place was Hotel 17, the Stuyvesant Square boardinghouse for trendy transients. Around the turn of the cen­tury, when the place was originally built as a res­idence for a few wealthy families, Christmas must have been celebrated on a grand scale here. Our Christmas, however, was a far more inti­mate occasion, observed in one dingy, cell-like room lined with designer clothes and books of obscure French theory.

The word room hardly does justice to the eight-by-10 stained brown box we were paying $30 a night for. In keeping with the tan color scheme, the taps coughed up diarrhea-colored water. The whitest thing in the room, including the sheets on the bed, was the neat pile of crys­talline powder glinting on the beat-up dresser. That, and the waxy squares of paper that lay crumpled on the threadbare carpet.

We’d been up for three days taking cocaine and crystal meth, grinding our teeth and talking shit about the true meaning of the season. In our deluded euphoric state, we decided that festive excess was what it was all about. Christmas is an opportunity for the casual drug-user, a time when the discipline of work and the normal restrictions on hedonistic behavior are relaxed. So it was easy to convince ourselves that staying up all night dancing and drugging was more in tune with the pagan roots of Christmas than the homogenized and domesticated rituals taking place in the world around us.

Personally, I loathe family Christmases, so I was, initially at least, more than happy to spend the holiday season snorting my brains out. But as as the drug supply began to run low, an edgy gloom set in, a mood amplified by the melancholic sounds of an old man muttering to himself in the hallway, a leftover from the day before the influx of drag queens and club brats, when Hotel 17 was a place where the elderly, the ill, and the drug-addicted came to die.

1995 collection of Village Voice memoirs by various authors

Like latter-day postmodern Scrooges, my wife and I thought we were immune to the re­lentless commercial propaganda of the season. Who did we think we were kidding? The reli­gious significance of Christmas may be often ob­scured by the gaudy displays of advertisers and shopkeepers, but as a holiday it retains a tremendous power to evoke communal and family feel­ing. It’s a spirit that can rarely be ignored with­out emotional cost, as we began to find out.

It was Christmas day. For the first time in my life, I was feeling homesick. There was no telephone in the room, so neither my wife nor I could call our parents. There was no television set, so we couldn’t watch It’s a Wonderful Life to get us in the requisite mood. We finally decided to venture out into the stinging cold to try and forage for a turkey dinner. All we could find open was a Korean deli with a salad bar, so our Christmas repast that year consisted not of roast beast with all the trimmings, but of a wilted col­lection of freezing vegetables. We weren’t that hungry anyway.

By now it was evening, time to get dressed, take more drugs, and make the nocturnal rounds. The supply of cocaine seemed unlimited that season. Speeding us across town to a friend’s loft, even the taxi driver offered us a hit. Once at our friend’s apartment, we played with his kids under the Christmas tree, then retired to a side room to do yet more lines. Then it was off to the clubs; every time we walked through a new door, someone would whisk us off to the bathroom.

“Next year, we’re gonna have a giving Christmas, not a taking Christmas,” my wife in­formed me before we finally fell asleep that night, our nostrils encrusted with powdery sed­iment. There was no need to elaborate. After all, there are only so many white Christmases a marriage can take.

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Open Season
BY ANN POWERS

Whatever sentimental phrase signals authentic Christmasness to you­ — sleigh bells jinglin’, angels heard on high, Jack Frost roasting on an open fire — in the down-and-dirty business of consumerism the only one that matters is the one reading OPEN LATE. And for procrastinators, even brighter is the rare sign that flashes OPEN 365 DAYS A YEAR. The record store where I worked a dozen years ago considered that sign a talisman and a creed. And so, while most people stuffed their faces and watched Rudolph or the 49ers, we per­formed the act of charity that meant the most to the late-running and the lonely. We cranked up the cash register and sold.

Working on Christmas may seem like a nightmare of Dickensian proportions, but the employees of Sell-More Discs actually competed for yule shifts. Record retail de­mands more love than ambi­tion — at just over minimum wage, few of us had savings accounts or truly habitable apartments. But we got to spend all day and night neck­ deep in the records we loved more than money, more than status, more than anything. On my crew, there was Terry, a hip­pie-maned-jazzboe who drove a hack for extra cash and ate macrobiotic; Korean Rastaman Lester; Southern gentleman-goth, Charles; Max, an avant-garde axman who actually had record bins set up in his house; punk speed-freak lovebirds Timmy and Corrine; folkie­-turned-performance artist Jade, a Wyoming transplant living in her van; and my best buddy, Penelope, a Roxy Music fanatic versatile enough to attend the symphony with one coworker and a Run-D.M.C. show with another. Me, I was a new-wave kid studying poetry and the blues, swiping all the records the simpatico security guard would allow, learning fast.

We were freaks; by choice or destiny, no one really knew. But what else are freaks going to do on Christmas but hang out at the shrine to all that makes them freaky? Many of us either had no parent figures or weren’t currently phon­ing home, so we volunteered for double shifts to earn triple overtime, and broke out the brandy and eggnog under the counter. But it was Bill, our night manager, who engineered the Sell-More Discs freak feast.

Bill and his brother Theo were Guamanian muscle-guys loyal to the company but in love with the employees. For the yule, Bill and Theo or­ganized a potluck, but this wasn’t just your usu­al banana bread-and-pretzels affair: Max made a vat of German potato salad, Lester cooked up some Caribbean bean stew, Terry provided soy cheesecake, and Pen baked a raisin-apple pie just like her mom always did. Even the speed kids managed to buy an Entenmenn’s pie. Best of all, Bill and Theo, generous and subversive to the end, set up a barbecue right by the back vent and smoked a  whole salmon, island-style.

We chowed between cash register shifts and blasted A Reggae Christmas as stragglers and lonely hearts wandered the store’s aisles. Some­body put up a poster of Wham! and started a darts game. A friend or two from outside dropped by for a glass of cheer and a shopping spree, receiving an extra-special holiday discount our bosses would never know about. And as always the local TV news crews showed up with their cameras and their question so off-the­-mark. “Isn’t it awful to work on Christmas?” the perky reporter said, scrunching his nose as we frantically hid our bottle of champagne behind the Yanni tapes. We made some joke or nasty comment — “well, you’re doing it, aren’t you?” — ­and got rid of them so we could get back to our party. It would have been too hard to explain what we knew: Ours was a family by choice, each member a misfit struggling to build some kinship that felt not just comfortable, but real. Sell-More Discs had given us a chance to do that. The truth was, we weren’t working this Christ­mas. We were spending the day at home.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

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Black Santa
BY KWELI I. WRIGHT

My brother and I knew from whence our dirt bikes, Christie dolls (black Barbies), Star Wars action figures, and Easy Bake Ovens came. From our parents, of course. After all, didn’t we give them carefully prepared Christmas lists, show them the pictures of the toys in the Toys “R” Us catalog? Couldn’t we see the rolls of wrapping paper hidden (not very well) in the closet?

Our parents liked ro keep it real. “Me and Daddy buy the toys, Santa just delivers them,” is how Mom explained the whole Saint Nick phenomenon. In 1979, while feeling the spirit a little more than usual, she decided to take our celebration to another level: she would hire a Santa to come to our building, ride up the ele­vator, and march straight to our apartment with a delivery of gifts. She found a Santa through a newspaper ad, and then she gave us details. He would come around 11 p.m. Christmas Eve and stay for dessert, so we might want to rest up. If I remember correctly, the whole deal with San­ta visiting is that you don’t see him, but that was beside the point to her: he was already paid. My brother Kareem and I had no questions or reser­vations about the fantasy-reality mix. We weren’t about to miss this.

So we left a glass of milk and a chunk of Entemann’s chocolate cake on the dining room table and waited at the top of the stairs for Santa to push through the unlocked door. As we crept down the steps we heard him frantically unpacking, knocking collectibles off the coffee table. Then we saw him.

This wasn’t any Santa — this Santa was as black and beautiful as my grandpa, only taller and younger. Back then I was eight, and I didn’t realize how important it was for me to see a black Santa. The thought never crossed my mind that this was probably the last one I’d see. It was my parents’ idea that Santa can be claimed by peo­ple of any color — black, white, Hispanic, Asian — because what he really represents is an extension of your family. She told me the other day that her goal was not to prove there was one real Santa, but to make sure we knew this gift-­giving guy belonged in our home.

When he heard two kids approaching, our guest freaked and ran to hide in the bedroom, emerging only after Kareem and I assured him that he was expected. We sat on the living-room floor with our legs crossed, grinning from ear to ear as our very own black Santa chuckled “Ho, ho, ho!” and laid exactly the presents we’d asked for under the tree.

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A Kwanzaa Carol
BY EVETTE PORTER

“I’m celebrating Kwanzaa this year,” my I nephew announced, a bit self-satisfied, when I asked him a few weeks ago what he wanted for Christmas. I assumed it was just another phase he was going through, like the time I want­ed to be called Balaniké, refusing to answer to anything else. My nephew, Daevon, is seven, and the oldest of my brother’s three children. And in years past, he’s enjoyed the kind of Christmas largesse that comes with being the first and, un­til recently, only child in the family. So for him to disavow Christmas would be a big deal.

“So, does that mean you don’t want any­thing for Christmas?” I asked, hoping I might be off the hook for gifts this year. “No! What are you, crazy?!” (Kids always speak in exclama­tions.) “Well, exactly what are you celebrating, Christmas or Kwanzaa?” I said, trying to force the issue. “Both, of course.”

Of course.

I grew up in the ’60s, before Kwanzaa’s sudden emergence as a major black holiday­ — now more popular than Juneteenth or Black History Month. Beginning the day after Christ­mas, Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration of fam­ily and spirituality. It’s thriving for the same rea­son black parents look for books with black faces or buy Shani dolls — it’s something they can use to build a “positive self-image” for their kids. Given the scarcity of black Santas, Kwanzaa makes the holiday season a bit more culturally correct. To me, the “tradition” sometimes seem a bit forced — but to Daevon, it’s clearly an ex­citing, if confusing, part of a burgeoning cultural identity. “So how do you celebrate Kwanzaa?” “On each day [sigh], you do different things with your family. But you have to read from the Kwanzaa book.”

“The Kwanzaa book?”

“Yeah, the Kwanzaa book. Everyone has the same words.”

“You read something out of a book?”

“No! You read from the book and then you do something with your family. But you don’t have to do exactly what’s in the book.”

“Okay.”

“Well, hmmmm … Aunt Muffy, could you hold on just one second?”

There’s a long pause.

At this point, I’m not so sure Daevon really understands what Kwanzaa is all about. He hasn’t mentioned the traditional candle-lighting ceremony or the seven principles (nguzo saba) of Kwanzaa — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

“I’m back. I was looking for my Kwanzaa book.”

“Tell me what you do each day to celebrate Kwanzaa.”

“Every day you and your family do some­thing together [another sigh]. Like on one of the days, all the money you save up … no, uh. One of the days, right, you make like a little piggy bank?’

“Uh-huh.”

“And you save up money, and put it in that bank. And then, and then the next coming Kwanzaa, that’s when you buy something BIG, for saving up all that money.”

“Okay, so the money you save up, do you buy something the next day or do you buy something the next year?”

“You buy something whenever you have enough money to buy something big.”

“Do you still celebrate Christmas?”

“Yes, you can still celebrate Christmas. But on the seventh day of Kwanzaa, that’s when you’re supposed to open all your gifts. The next Monday [a week from Christmas].”

“Are you having a Christmas play at school.”

“Yeah, I’m in it. It’s all the second graders.”

“And what are you doing in it?”

“Oh, I’m singing a song. It’s not like a play, it’s a presentation. Every second-grade class is singing a song, one song. Like ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ ‘Must See Santa,’ and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’ We’re doing songs like that. And there is a Kwanzaa song.”

“What’s the Kwanzaa song?”

“l really don’t know all the words. Hold on, I have to think this through.” (Barely audi­ble mumbling as my nephew tries to remember the verse.)

“While you’re thinking, tell me what you want for Christmas, I mean Kwanzaa.”

“Oh, I know some of the words — ‘Children learn their history.’ ”

“Children learn their history?”

“Huh-huh. Yeah. I know half of the song.”

“Do you know when Kwanzaa began? Where it came from?”

“It came from Africa.”

“No, it didn’t. In 1966, a guy named Ron Karenga, a black man, decided to create a holiday that was more nationalistic, more Afrocentric. But it’s based on African traditions. There’s a harvest celebration in Africa that’s similar to it, but it’s not the same thing. It actually began here in the U.S. Did you know that?”

“No. I did not know that.”

Well, I’ve done my bit for black history.

“Do you want different gifts for Kwanzaa than you want for Christmas?”

“Yeah, totally different.”

“What do you want for Kwanzaa?”

“Like African American things.”

“What?”

“I don’t know … like scarves that have …”

“Kente cloth?”

“Yeah, and, like, stuff that has the colors of Kwanzaa and other colors. And in the middle of it, it has ’95. That’s the year I got it.”

“If ’95 is in the middle, what’s going to be on the outside?

“Around 1995, I want the border to be red, black, and green.”

“Okay.”

“I think that’s it for Kwanzaa.”

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The Worst Noel
BY ELIZABETH ZIMMER

“Bubbe-meises,” my New York Jewish mother snapped whenever the subject of Christmas came up. Lies and superstitions, all of it: the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth. A lot of nonsense. She’d get cross and impatient. We never had trees; we exchanged modest gifts at Hanukkah; when we got older there were no gifts at all, just her gen­erous check “for your birthday, really,” which followed in January.

Then a guy proposed to me; a sculptor, sweet and shy, a lapsed Lutheran from the out­skirts of Buffalo whose terrific homemaker mom announced, when she first met me, that her best friends were Jewish. It was 1969, and the no­tion of getting married seemed as bizarre as everything else in the zeitgeist, but at the same time made sense; we’d create a safe haven for each other amid the prevailing sexual and political chaos. I became a legal member of his Chris­tian family (albeit in a Jewish ceremony). Dodg­ing his draft board, we’d emigrated to Nova Scotia, miles from everyone we knew, to teach at an art college in an officially Christian country. I embraced Christmas as impetuously as I’d entered marriage. That year, I participated enthusiastically, readying the tree in the picture win­dow, crafting elaborate ornaments and baking spicy German cookies like his mother’s. Hand­ made presents winged toward us; we scrambled to reciprocate on our entry-level paychecks. He made oyster stew on Christmas Eve, as his clan had always done; we spent the holidays cook­ing and welcoming new acquaintances.

1995 collection of Village Voice memoirs by various authors

By the next Christmas we knew he was about to lose his job, but we kept shopping, cooking, entertaining. The Christmas after that, he was unemployed. The one after that, he was, I guess you’d say, self-employed, experimenting in our cellar with prototypes of furniture he hoped to manufacture and sell, filling the air with chem­ical smells and the sound of a ripsaw. I was earn­ing all our money, still cobbling together cele­brations, frightened and anxious and tired.

Something had to change. Never marry anybody you wouldn’t hire, I found myself mut­tering under my breath. The next Christmas we got a tree, but all I felt like hanging on it was food: popcorn, cookies, foil-wrapped chocolates on golden strings from the vast sweets empori­um down the road. That year he gave me a steam iron and a pair of ice skates. I don’t remember what I gave him. But on Boxing Day I began eat­ing the ornaments, one Santa after another, until the boughs were bare. Then I started packing. I walked the mile to work every morning, took a dance class every night. Three months later I quit my job and moved across the country, alone.

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Holiday on Ice Cream
BY MICHAEL MUSTO

I’m probably the only nondysfunctional Christmas guy in the entire metropolitan area. Home for the holidays to my parents’ kitsch-laden house in Bensonhurst, I return to the awe-inspiring decor that, in its own magi­cally garish way, spells love. Crocheted flowers, stickpin owls, and dolls of many nations blind­ingly adorn the joint, and most eye-catchingly of all, half the fridge door is done as a homage to Jesus Christ, while the other half is covered with pictures of my parents’ other idol, me (their on­ly child, after all). Everything’s equal here — not only am I aligned with the Christ figure, but beautiful clocks equal 99-Cent Store Pierrot heads — and the Christmassy doodads add even more festive layers that further steamroll every­thing to the same lovely level.

But the real celebration is in the food; to quote the well-spoken duck in Babe, Christmas means carnage. A gigantic lasagna or baked ziti could easily serve as the main course in any other home in the world, but in this place it’s a mere hint of a shred of an appetizer. It’s followed by voluminous amounts of meatballs, sausages, and other gravy meats, all covered with blizzards of parmesan cheese and tomato sauce. Then, if you’re still alive, come the entrées: wildly delicious chicken and ham dishes, plus an array of sides — namely sal­ads, candied yams, mushrooms, and a quiche made with artichoke hearts. Just when you’re sure your stomach is about to blow apart, out come the insanely large tubs of sherbet and ice cream, plus the donuts, pastries, cakes, and pies, with Reddi Wip, Cool Whip, and La Creme standing by for good measure. Say no to any of this and you’re driving a knife through my mother’s heart. These loving if artery-clogging offerings say she cares. To accept them means you care back.

The mood is generally warm, the company familiar. But some­how, amid the threat of all that happiness and satiation, semidysfunctions do tend to crop up. In this setting, my attempts at dark humor — so delightful elsewhere — can be misinterpreted as cruel; other family members’ politically incorrect comments drive my friends into the bathroom crying (there, they can enjoy mom’s doll-shaped toilet paper coverings); and, as everyone jockeys for attention, merriment sometimes leads, at the drop of a meatball, to hurt feelings, none of them directed by Jodie Foster. But in the wake of all this, mom has the best response of all: “Come on, have some more ice cream!”

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Manger? Mangia!
BY FRANK RUSCITTI

My family is extremely Italian. You want proof? We come from a small town called Cansano in the mountain ranges of Abruzzi that had one road in and one road out. We immigrated to the States in 1955 (making the front page of Il Progresso in a “just off the boat” photo) and settled on that most Brooklyn of all Brooklyn street corners, 33rd and Third. We got guys named Mario and Antonio in our family, but thank heaven no one wears gold chains. Like all good Italians (southern Italy, at least; anything north of Milan is Ger­many anyway), we celebrate every Christmas Eve with the biggest seafood dinner this side of Jesus and that loaves-of-bread episode. The funny thing is most Italians don’t know why we party this way; phone calls to organizations such as the Italian Cultural Institute and the Italian Heritage and Cultural Commission were met with the verbal equivalent of shrugged shoul­ders. Words like history and tradition are thrown around, but the only fact that seems to count is that a minimum of dishes must be served (ac­cording to one coworker nine, my sister eight, my mother 12). No one seems to know why we do what we do every year without fail.

But ours is not to question why, ours is just to eat, eat, eat. Not, however, until everyone is ready. My sisters bring out plate after heaping plate, only to yell, “GET YOUR HANDS OFF OF THAT!” with all the love they can muster if anyone moves too soon. It’s friggin’ torture. Picture Red Lobster, except the fish is real and cooked by humans. Homemade pasta with calamari. Baked clams. Salmon steaks. Breaded scallops. Octopus salad. Baccala. Stuffed squid. Shrimp scampi. Shrimp cocktails. And that’s just for starters.

More than once, I’ve fasted before the feast, making penance for my sins and drooling thanks while fantasizing about the greatest meal of the year. Talk about tripping! Some years were classics, like the one when 11 main courses were served (the record!), or the one when we were invaded by non-English speaking Danish students. Everyone is welcome at the table as long as they can endure my family’s penchant for demanding they sing Christmas carols for their supper; even faked lyrics bring a loud roar of approval. It’s an offer guests can’t refuse, because even the feeblest attempt brings a non-stop embarrassment of riches in the form of lobster, breaded shrimp, mussels, seared tuna, raw clams, and more. Christmas day is almost an afterthought, because year after year Christmas Eve kicks its butt hands down.

Recently, a faction of American-born offspring has started a separate “kids’ meal.” A pasta with meatballs dish is served to children who won’t eat fish. Of course, certain family members (including me) grumble that if they aren’ going to eat seafood they should starve. Why? It’s tradition!

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God Bless Us, Every One
BY MARIAH CORRIGAN

It was Christmas 1974 at the Immaculate Conception Children’s Home, and Suprima, Ineeda, and I had already planned all the things we were going to make in our Easy Bake Ovens. We were nine, and the nine-year-old girls always got ovens; it was a tradition. How else would we learn to cook? Certainly not from Sister Mary (their middle names were always Mary) Bougofawa, the home’s head cook, who didn’t make anything if it wasn’t white and boiled beyond recognition. The ovens were handed out at the home’s yearly holiday extravaganza. That day, we set our hair, dug out our good dresses and church shoes, and filed down to the gym in anticipation of an unrecognizable dinner and Christmas presents.

But this year things just didn’t look right. The tree wasn’t as large as I’d remembered it; the head table, reserved for the community sponsors of this shindig, was nearly empty. Where was Mr. Harold? He was town supervi­sor and always the Christmas party organizer. And what about his good friend Mr. Vinny? He took care of all the construction needs around the Children’s Home for free, and in return thee older boys went to work for him. The nuns tried to be tight-lipped about it; only after a good bit of badgering did Sister Mary Josephine (whom I’d recently witnessed executing karate moves on a wayward boy) offer that Mr. Harold was in jail. I don’t remember exactly what for, bribery or embezzlement, but it must have had something to do with Mr. Vinny, because he seemed to be making himself pretty scarce, too.

Everything seemed dimmer. Even the local football ream, whose B-string usually put in a two-minute appearance to have their pictures taken with us orphan children, barely stayed one minute, and in the time it took me to run down the hall to go to the bathroom, they’d all been and gone, leaving behind some sort of apolo­getic team manager. (We once met O.J., but we had to be bused to a location more convenient for him — an awards dinner where we were trot­ted out for a group photo with the man himself. Later, we were each awarded a tiny plastic auto­graphed football for our well-behaved perfor­mance as the grateful needy.)

But the worst was yet to come. The party ended, and we were commanded to say our thank yous, gather up our gifts, and, in an or­derly line, follow the nun in charge of our re­spective groups back to our playrooms. Ineeda and I were already suspicious. All our boxes seemed small — hell, all mine seemed to be the same size. Could they possibly contain an Easy Bake Oven? Maybe they packed it in parts­— how ingenious and surprising! We sat on the in­door/outdoor carpet, our presents arrayed in front of us, waiting impatiently for Sister Mary Luciose to give us the go-ahead. She counted: five, four, three, two, one … We went mad. When all the wrapping was cleared away, I had two crib toys, recommended for children ages 0-3, and seven identical boxes of Shrinky Dink Make-it-Yourself Christmas ornaments, which, to my horror, I needed an oven to make.

As I turned in dismay to Sister Mary Lu­ciose, I saw her wrinkly 60-year-old face flush. Her eyes began to bulge from behind her brown cat-eyed glasses. Uh-oh. I thought her head might explode — I thought she would lose that veil, so I would know once and for all if that shock of hair on her forehead was indeed the imitation hairpiece I had once wagered it was. Sister Mary launched into a lecture on material­ism and the beast it would turn me into, how I would never get to heaven with that attitude, missy. She feared for my soul. I didn’t care. Even as she marched me off for the special emergency confession she had arranged with Father Walter the next morning, all I could think about was … I want an Easy Bake Oven, goddammit.

I wasn’t really an orphan — I had a mother, though she had shed her worldly trappings to live as a hermit in the Genesee River Valley. And I had a father. When he arrived to collect me for my allotted holiday visit on Christmas Eve (appar­ently having passed the Breathalyzer test Sister Mary Rosanne reserved specially for him) I was still hellbent on some decent presents. I had no illusions about who Santa was. As he deposited me with my two retired, never-married school­teacher aunts, I dispatched my guilt-ridden fa­ther to the mall to retrieve an Easy Bake Oven.

As the evening wore on, I began to fear that perhaps he couldn’t find me anything. The aunts were dazed and unsure of what to do with me. My yammering about the Easy Bake Oven sent one aunt running to the kitchen for a bourbon straight up, while the other slipped in and out of the living room to refill her glass with an amber liquid she said was apple cider, but which my watchful eyes knew was beer. When I quieted down, the aunts whispered to each other that he’d probably gone oven shopping at Jo-J’s Bar & Grill. I occupied myself with reruns of Hawaii Five-O and slowly began to surrender my dreams of being a chef I was ready for bed when I heard his familiar staggering steps on the front porch. Aunt Jean flipped on the porch light, and there was Dad — squinting and disheveled in the sud­den illumination, but holding a box. I could tell instantly what the abused wrapping concealed, because I knew the shape by heart — here, at last, was my Easy Bake Oven.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

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Bah Humdrum
BY COREY SABOURIN

This is going to be a shitty Christmas. John is going upstate. Ditto David. Ditto Bob.

Darrin’s found a lover. Lucky him. They’ll want privacy as they model their new His & His flannel robes.

Devra … Michigan. Jeff … Fresno. Blaine? Maybe — or no, isn’t he going to India?

My roommate is working coatcheck again, regrets, though it will be fun opening gifts at 5 a.m.

Out of everyone, I’ll be missing Liz the most. She’s the woman I’d go straight for if such a thing were possible. A soulmate since the 12th grade (she might peg the date further back, to Mr. Compton’s Exploratory Reading class at Petalunia Junior High, but hopefully that argu­ment’s settled), Liz came east with photos of her handsome fiancé in ’92, and left just before Christmas. In ’93 the pair returned, married, but at Rumbul’s on Christopher Street the first of many heart-to-hearts began. In ’94, she was divorced, depressed, but nowhere near the lump of coal she thinks she was. For ’95 she’s staying put in California. Can I blame her?

If it’s me and my cat sharing a can of tuna on Christmas Day, it’s my fault. Mom and Dad needle me to hop a plane. But the sour taste of predictable yule traditions still lingers and besides, I hate to fly. I have to improvise. One year, it was lasagna and a Georgy Girl video. Another, it was the Monster Bar employee dinner: Miss Shari, the drag queen, presided, and Lady Aaron, the 70-plus bookkeeper, gave us tiaras and white taffeta.

This year? Glenn might be down from Provincetown, and Michael will surely throw a pre-Christmas shindig, although nude Polaroids are usually involved, and I vowed never to end up in that scandal shoebox. Then there’s Nesha, Liz’s and my friend, who, bless her heart, has ex­tended an invitation to dinner “if you don’t have anything else to do.”

Will I? The 11th hour is the moment great things happen in this town. Like Christmas Eve ’92, when Hunter, Scott, and I drifted into the chapel of the Theological Seminary in Chelsea, where the burnt-out Church of the Holy Cross congregation was holding services. “I’m an athe­ist,” Hunter protested in the cold, reluctant to go inside. “Do you know what this means?” So? I was a lapsed Lutheran, and Scott was Jewish. Inside we shared a pew with another group of spectator-worshipers dressed more like they prayed at the altar of Barneys.

But then the Episcopalian pastor delivered a message of antidiscrimination, which he ex­tended to sexuality and health. And the female chorus members sang She in place of He during the Nicene Creed. That stole any grinch left in­side me; even my atheist friend smiled. Sud­denly I was terrifically glad to be there, and nowhere else.

Here’s hoping.

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Window Pain
BY LYNN YAEGER

I’m Jewish. This wasn’t my idea ro begin with, so imagine how I felt at the age of three when I discovered that there was an upcoming holiday full of twinkly lights, candy canes, and piles of presents, the centerpiece of which was a tiny doll lying in a toy cradle sur­rounded by its mommy and daddy (well, he cer­tainly seemed like the daddy … ) and a lot of cute little animals. Oh yes, my mother conced­ed. She knew all about this holiday, she rold me brightly. But it’s not for us! We don’t have it!

Quite frankly, I have never gotten over this revelation. I have spent the last three decades trying to effect a working compromise: Do I send out cards but draw the line at lights? Go for the lights but eschew the tree? Once I actually did drag a tree up six flights of stairs (did I know you need a tree stand? Did I know there would still be pine needles sticking out of the carpet on the fourth of July?). I even tried to avoid the festivities altogether by fleeing to Eu­rope, but like death in Samarra, Christmas was waiting for me when I got off the plane.

I burst into tears a lot at Christmas time. Mr. Magoo induces spasms of sobbing. I can’t watch Meet Me in St. Louis without practically having to call an ambulance. So why do I undertake my methodical investigation of each and every store’s holiday windows each and every year? Same rea­son some people hang out at the Vault, I guess.

My first srop is usually Bloomingdale’s, a store I always think of as Jewish anyway. (Saks and Bloomingdalc’s are Jewish. Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf’s are not.) This year’s display con­sists of 12 trees decorated by Robert Isabell, the hot society florist recently employed for the gar­ish wedding of one of the so-called fabulous Miller sisters. The trees are hung variously with grocery produce (strawberries and zucchinis­ — or maybe they’re cucumbers?), glitzy jewelry (the contents of a morning sweep at the 26th Street flea market?), candy, roses, crystals, Vic­torian toys, and sheaves of wheat. They’re beautiful, but not particularly snivel-inducing. Far more enticing is the small mannequin in a side window: she’s bright red, holds a green garland wound with black and white Chanel ribbons, and she’s sprouting a little tree where her head should be.

Two blocks over, the witty, vaguely cyni­cal windows at Barneys make no reference to the imminent festivities at all. They’re like the senior project of a prestigious graduate school design seminar: Dada-esque tableaux, in beige and pewter (Barneys’s version of red and green), illustrating proverbs like “many hands make light work” (disembodied digits holding lightbulbs). I can see they’re clever, but instead of inducing yuletide longing they make me feel like I’m standing outside a nightclub while the doorperson is telling me I’m not on the list.

My next stop is positively homey by com­parison: Tiffany & Co., where the tiny jewel­box windows reflect the tasteful treasures with­in. The conceit here is ornithologic: faintly Disney-esque penguins with party hats (hey, this is 57th Street) celebrate New Year’s Eve; the P. Johns family (get it?), a nuclear unit dressed in 1940s outfits, nestle in a tree house; Santa rides in a sled pulled by green parakeets, etc. The on­ly jewelry in evidence is around the neck of a woodpecker — he’s wearing a stunning cabo­chon ruby and diamond cross. (A woodpecker gets to wear a cross and I don’t?)

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I’m still dry-eyed, though I have a weak moment when the Salvation Army girl lets loose with a heartbreaking rendition of “Hark the Her­ald Angels Sing.” I have to grit my teeth and think about the plot of Guys and Dolls (I hum the Fugue for Tinhorns to distract myself) as I march down Fifth Avenue to Saks. On the way I pass Henri Bendel, where the vitrines show leering, huge­-eared automata-elves done up like doormen brandishing merchandise from their out-stretched palms. (Do Bendel’s shoppers really need this unsubtle reminder that it’s tipping time again?)

At Saks, I’m confronted with my first real­ly traditional windows of the season — a series of mechanical tableaux depicting the story of Margie and Nick and the little snowman they befriend. I won’t bore you with the details, but Nick and Margie make friends with Santa, who takes everyone to the Rainbow Room for “mu­sic, dancing, cakes and cookies. It was swell.” Suddenly I’m all choked up: I’m dying to go to the Rainbow Room on Christmas Eve too, and I ain’t ordering cookies either. After a few min­utes wallowing in my sad fate, it dawns on me: isn’t it a little fishy that Marge and Nick and even the snowman are spending Christmas Eve at the Rainbow Room instead of midnight mass?

Thus cheered, I proceed to that bastion of Christian gentility, Lord & Taylor. This is year the windows feature an old-fashioned version of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas. There are mechanical pyrotechnics here as well — Santa’s big tummy heaves as if he’s about to have a heart attack, reindeer jog in place, and there are winsome little mice scuttling over the rafters — very charming unless you have lived on the Lower East Side where little mice still scut­tle across the rafters. (Once a mouse got trapped in my toaster oven. You don’t want to know.) The scenes are sentimental and touching and perfectly serviceable, if not terribly original.

In the corner window, there’s a poignant display of one of those Dickens Christmas vil­lages full of miniature 19th-century houses, skating ponds, dwarf trees, and surgical-cotton snow. For some reason, this little town gets to me far more than the main display. I’m starting to feel really sorry for myself (it’s easy! try it!) when I see a bunch of bedraggled second graders on a field trip being whipped along by a sullen teacher’s aide. They’ve been forced to wear big cardboard signs with their names and addresses, and although a few are facing their fate with false hilarity, many others are sunk in the pro­found existential misery I remember so well.

Nothing lifts the spirit quicker than the agony of others, and suddenly I’m so light­hearted that I fairly skip to Macy’s, a store over­loaded with Christmas mirth. I try to affect a stance as hard-bitten as the six-year-old Natalie Wood’s in Miracle on 34th Street, but it’s not really necessary: these circus-themed dioramas (a plate twirler, a clumsy acrobat) leave me al­most entirely unmoved. The coup de grace is a couple of clowns cavorting around a Volkswa­gen piled high with presents like TV sets and CD players. (A Volkswagen is supposed to make me feel nostalgic about Christmas? In my fam­ily, you re not even allowed to buy a comb that’s stamped Germany.)

The last window I look at holds two huge elephants flanking a slinky brunette mannequin in an evening gown. It’s an uncanny homage to Dovima, and I have a funny feeling that the fel­las in the display department snuck it right over the heads of Macy’s executives. But maybe they didn’t! Maybe the bureaucrats at Macy’s simply worship Avedon! Strangely buoyant, I descend the steps to the BMT, ready to go home, string up my dalmatian-and-fire-hydrant lights, and face the difficult days ahead. ❖

Categories
From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Republican Nation: Save Our Symbols

S.O.S.: Save Our Symbols
January 10, 1995

THE NIGHT AFTER THEIR REVOLUTION, Esther and I washed dishes in Laura’s kitchen. It was Laura’s birth­day, and we’d celebrated (because, fuck it all, we needed to). Now, we were talking about the fact and the fairy tale of what had happened. We threw around the common predictions — social repression, economic depression, the dismantling of civil rights. I tried to make fun of fundamentalists, but ended up retreating into the dislocated feeling I’d first experienced way back when I was 20 and nobody I knew elected Ronald Reagan. My country, their revolution: here it came again, supposedly the spawn of a Middle America I couldn’t see in my kind, tolerant, working-class Wisconsin cousins, or in my freedom-loving Northwest family, all middle class and raised religious, with different opinions about abortion and the welfare state, but none of them this inhumane or this foolhardy.

“What’s being said,” Esther muttered into the soap suds, “makes me feel erased.”

“I know what you mean,” I replied.

“No,” she said. “I mean by our side. By the left.”

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This is how believing in their revolution hurts us. Esther spent the Reagan-Bush years — her twenties — as an activist and a cultural progressive, organizing for ACT UP, hanging out in an experimental arts collective, teaching junior high, and designing workshops to promote racial tolerance. Like me, like our friend Laura the Middle East activist and new-music promoter, Esther was very busy during the ’80s. She endured failure and dissension within her various communities, but she also saw progress. She wasn’t just living in a boho fishbowl; her efforts educated, expanded the discourse, and often effected real change. And she wasn’t alone — across America progressives created different versions of this synthesis of radical culture and political organizing. Yet she was being told that the left she’d helped preserve during a decade of very hard times was dead; that street activism and identity politics, not to mention a too-strong focus on culture, had in fact destroyed the left long ago. And that the only way to reclaim power was to disregard the importance of the very ground people like herself had won.

“The ambitions of the left have been political and their triumphs cultural, while the ambitions of the right have been cultural and their triumphs political,” Adam Gopnik wrote recently in The New Yorker. This aphorism elegantly de­scribes the way much of the left currently sees itself. The duality it expresses makes possible the judgments self-styled leftsavers are making about activities they deem “cultural.” This cordoning-off of culture from politics leaves no room for the evolving reality of left politics since the early ’70s, as it’s been shaping up in the imagination and on the streets. It dismisses the power of the arts to effect consciousness, and questions the importance of lifestyle, education, or any kind of socially oriented work that falls outside the the traditional political arenas of the voting booth, the picket line, and the halls of power.

Yet the very slipperiness of the term culture highlights its capacity to jump and blend boundaries, emphasizing the interplay of knowledge, belief, and behavior through which a society emerges over time. The split between culture and politics is an unnatural one; this is the rudimentary lesson of feminism, queer liberation, and movements led by people of color. If such a split is reasserted, it will once again devalue these groups, who’ve often been dismissed by hard-line politicos, in a very old-fashioned way: by marking their pre­occupations as frivolous. (Did I hear someone say “too fem­inine”?) And it will narrow our political vision on an even deeper level. What we’ve developed by taking culture seri­ously is a view of the political as a web, connecting individ­ual identity to community concerns, and personal passions to a larger social agenda. Exploring this web has kept the left alive during an era of vicious attack from the right. More than that, it’s made the left a more inclusive, multifaceted presence in American society.

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SOME MAY SAY TALKING about the links between lifestyle and activism, or the symbolic and the material, is mere distraction in our current state of emergency. But dis­missing this conversation as irrelevant not only makes it hard to understand our weaknesses, it denies our strengths. The syncretic view is what fed the heart of the left as it beat within direct-action groups like ACT UP, WAC, WHAM, and Queer Nation; in those doing clinic defense, guerrilla environmentalism, and immigrant advocacy; in the oft-maligned academy; and through the work of artists ranging from Karen Finley to Public Enemy and Roseanne. What these various figures and groups shared was the radically democratic notion that politics could happen wherever a person’s strengths and interests led.

This principle is elemental to our nation of individual­ists. It became progressive through the social critique orig­inating in the civil-rights movement and the counterculture. Those of us schooled in this history invested less faith in electoral politics than we did in the changes that sprang from conversations across women’s kitchen tables or in the neigh­borhoods where community workers lived, or, yes, through the words and visions of artists who have helped us under­stand the structure and experience of oppression, and the possibility of freedom. Our faith came from witnessing how change happened in our own lives.

The decentralized approach many activists have adopt­ed since the ’70s suits our moment. Direct action efforts like abortion clinic defense, for example, require loose net­working that can easily adapt to changes in agenda. Battered women’s shelters, free clinics, or needle exchange services all originate (and thrive) through the efforts of a few dedicat­ed people who see a need right there, right then, and fill it. When such methods work, they offer an antidote to the big­-government approach the right accuses the left of backing: grassroots organizing reduces bureaucracy in favor of a hands-on, usually nonhierarchical, practical approach.

So much of our daily lives contradicts the old defini­tion of a common culture as a homogeneous whole and de­mands a new model for community. Technology makes mi­crocosms. Architecture subdivides. The marketplace places us in niches. We need a model that accepts difference and seeks the common within it — a key to the new language that arises from mixing things up. Multiculturalism tries to imag­ine such a model. Rather than the downfall-of-the-left naysayers accuse it of being, multiculturalism is at heart a complex lesson in the art of empathy, essential to forming a vital movement in divided times. Multiculturalism starts with a simple method: listen and learn. It uses culture’s tools (the story, the image, the custom) to ground analysis. The process takes time. As we unlearn the rhetoric of Barbie Dolls and a vengeful God, we replace it by hearing other tales, discovering other icons, celebrating other realities. If we really want a broad-based left, this is the first, most prac­tical step.

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SOME OF US DRAWN to the left since the 1970s studied politics or stumped for the Democrats in school; more often, we learned our values from what the left’s stern commentators would label “cultural.” Sometimes the way the web works is very clear, as when homocore punk band Team Dresch offers a self-defense workshop (women only!) to open a gig, or the San Francisco conceptual art team Margaret Crane/Jon Winet de­sign tiny, elegant placards inscribed with AIDS prevention information and distribute them in restaurants. Less easy to prove, but nonetheless traceable, is the path that leads from being a Pearl Jam fan to volunteering at a center for child abuse victims, or from frequenting the Body Shop to becoming an environmentalist, or from reading a Toni Morrison novel to organizing against racist policies in your local school district. (Or reading a Morrison novel and hating Clarence Thomas; your public opinion isn’t just based on watching the nightly news, after all.)

It’s not just Lollapaloozers who believe that your life can be changed by rock and roll, or a great book, or even a TV show. Ad people know that ritual and image influence how people structure their opinions and their lives. So does the Christian right. In fact, the right un­derstands that in the 25 years since Janis Joplin died, pop­ular culture has helped shape a more liberal public. Anita Hill’s fall followed the summer of Thelma & Louise, and al­though the hearings themselves favored a horrifying con­servatism, you can bet that the women and men watching at home — those who, in the next election, chose more women than ever before — took what they’d felt and learned from the confluence of imagined scenarios and cold, hard facts into the voting booth.

Now, the right aims to possess the leaky means of ideological distribution known as the popular. The right knows the value of culture; that’s why it uses talk radio and television and religion now, and why, before Clinton became the only punching bag that mattered, it fought so hard against lightning rods like Karen Finley, hip hop, and Murphy Brown. Conservatism’s superstars attract their supporters by making their narrow-minded viewpoints fleshy, fun­ny, and moving — ex­actly what rock and roll, street fashion, and strains within all of the common arts have done for radical thought over the past third of a century. For the moment, the right’s wet weekend with pop has given it a ruddy glow. But the mass appeal they’re mining is a cruel one, based around bullying. Their fun is a gouge in the eye — a shtick that’s always appealed to crowds, from Shakespeare’s time to the present. Such mean-spirited fun appeals to the weakness in people, which is certainly vast, but ultimately un­satisfying. The aspect of culture that’s about learning, about expanding the self, isn’t honored here. That’s why figures like Father Coughlin and Joe McCarthy fell, and why Rush and Howard will someday, too.

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Progressive movements have been far more successful in changing people’s worldviews. In fact, the loose web of attitudes reflecting some tie to post-’60s left politics has so successfully invaded the main­stream that it’s got its own market niche: alternative. This term, dread­ed by all who feel protective of the margins, encompasses everything from earth-friendly toilet paper to postpunk music to the Internet. Its impact remains hard to bottle: there’s been a sea change in attitudes about gays and lesbians since Stonewall, for example, obvious in the wide defeat of antigay legislation in the last election as well as in the popularity of Philadelphia and k.d. lang. Yet that legislation keeps pop­ping up, and as the tussle over gays in the military showed, many people aren’t willing to open the doors of American institutions to new values. Still, radical culture’s energy keeps regenerating, and when it’s tapped it can bring new people into the left, sustain those who are already com­mitted, and sway those on the fence.

The feeling on the left right now may be that we need to abandon our cultural focus and get seri­ous. I think we need to get serious about culture — as serious as we’ve ever been. We can see Melissa Etheridge at the Garden and feel uplifted, or give Mom a copy of Cor­nel West’s new volume and possibly affect one point of view. But we know that’s not enough. We need to retain the critique of capitalism that helps us recognize consumption as part of the system, not freedom from it. Then we need to take the next step, not abandoning the cultural but politicizing it further. That next step can lead in many different directions — toward intervening in institutions, seizing the means of pro­duction, changing our family lives, our sex lives, ourselves.

Artists and activists must be fearless now. Retreating isn’t the so­lution, and neither is penitence. We need to devise ways to make the symbolic a potent political weapon once again. The legacy starts here. ❖