Presents Pending

Mary Valmont

Age 42

Resides Brooklyn

Occupation Research psychologist

What’s the worst Christmas present you’ve ever gotten? Two incredibly dull, plain sweatshirts from a new boyfriend. I found out he gave the exact genderless thing to his mother.

What’s the worst one you’ve ever given? A friend of mine lost her mother, and I gave her a picture of the two of them. Inadvertently, it triggered a lot of pain, so it was very awkward.

What do you want most for Christmas this year? To find out I’ll be able to run again. A city bus ran over a Con Edison construction plate and flipped it onto my foot. I spent a week in Bellevue. My toes are only recently looking like toes again. I’m supposed to find out today how well I’m doing.

Scott Lustig

Age 42

Resides Brooklyn

Occupation Systems analyst

What’s the worst Christmas present you’ve ever gotten? The year I was expecting a CD player and I ended up with tools. They were RoboGrips, but I wanted the label to say Aiwa.

What’s the worst one you’ve ever given? I gave my wife, who was then my girlfriend, an empty box which I said was full of “hopes and wishes.” She didn’t think it was funny, particularly when she was expecting an engagement ring. It didn’t matter that I had blown my wad on a shearling coat for her—the whole thing just failed.

What do you want most for Christmas this year? I still don’t have the CD player. I want the one with the radio in it.

Kenan Baluken

Age 24

Resides New Jersey

Occupation Market scientist

What’s the worst Christmas present you’ve ever gotten? A carton of cigarettes. A kid I was mentoring gave it to me.

What’s the worst one you’ve ever given? A watch that my father never wore. I think it wasn’t expensive enough for him.

What do you want most for Christmas this year? A trip to Jamaica. I want someone to buy the tickets and make the hotel reservations. All I’d have to do is get on the plane.

Beate Von Stutterheim

Age 40

Resides Manhattan

Occupation Housewife

What’s the worst Christmas present you’ve ever gotten? A flannel nightgown from my first husband. It had lace around the neck. We got divorced a month later.

What’s the worst one you’ve ever given? I gave my sister-in-law a bad-quality cashmere sweater that I knew would fall apart.

What do you want most for Christmas this year? I am living my fantasy—I get what I want ever since I married my second husband.

Sake Nibe

Age 28

Resides Brooklyn

Occupation Jewelry designer

What’s the worst Christmas present you’ve ever gotten? Getting nothing is the worst. My boyfriend doesn’t believe in Christmas, so he doesn’t buy me anything. I’m actually still waiting for my birthday present from two months ago.

What’s the worst one you’ve ever given? I always give nice things.

What do you want most for Christmas this year? I’ve been looking for pink leather or vinyl boots, which I’m clearly going to have to give myself for Christmas.

David Seabrook

Age 40

Resides Manhattan

Occupation Clerk, postal service

What’s the worst Christmas present you’ve ever gotten? My father gave me a brown hat with fur and leather. I looked like a military cadet and it was awful.

What’s the worst one you’ve ever given? Doing some last-minute, desperation shopping, I stopped a woman with a comb in her hair and asked where she’d gotten it. It turned out that she bought it in the store where she worked. When I went there, and paid $25 for the thing, I was sure she’d called ahead and said, “Some schmuck is coming, you can charge him whatever you want.”

What do you want most for Christmas this year? If I got a laptop computer, I’d be on top of the world.

Maggie Curran

Age 21

Resides Brooklyn

Occupation Retired

Age over 21 Resides


What’s the worst Christmas present you’ve ever gotten? A divorce. It was broken to the family at Christmas. They had to know because my husband was moving out of the house the first of the new year.

What’s the worst one you’ve ever given? I don’t know—nobody ever told me if they hated what I gave them.

What do you want most for Christmas this year? An open-ended gift certificate to Barnes & Noble.


Through a Glass Darkly

It’s the height of what the financial pages call the fourth quarter, and despite their outward confidence fancy retailers are plenty jittery: Could this be Dow Jones’s last happy Christmas? Once those Wall Street bonuses start shrinking, the market for alligator earplugs and 18-karat brandy snifters shrivels considerably.

In uncertain times, the task of the department store holiday window is ever more daunting. Charged with coming up with a magic formula that mixes just the right brew of sentiment and civic pride, piety and pretension, is it any wonder window dressers spend 11 months of the year worrying about the 12th?

Over at Bloomingdale’s, the powers that be have decreed that strict secularism is the best bet: not only are there hardly any religious symbols in evidence, there aren’t even any people. Instead, the deep vitrines offer a Museum of Natural History–ish sylvan glen populated by wooden deer, stone bears, and snow-covered rabbits: just the kind of pastoral you’d drive past on your way upstate to Woodbury Common in search of bargains. The last window does succumb to tradition, with a Christmas tree next to a table laden with pumpkin pie. A soundtrack of little voices (the chorus of the Children’s Aid Society) trills “Over the River and Through the Woods,” including a verse that states, jubilantly, “Now grandma’s cap I spy!” Who cares that the only gear on grandma’s head these days is likely to be a baseball cap, and the dessert she’s serving is probably Entenmann’s?

The grandmother of the mannequins gracing the windows at Bergdorf Goodman probably hasn’t had a slice of pie since World War II—in fact, she seems to have carted her liposuctioned carcass off to someplace like Canyon Ranch for the holiday season. In any case, her presence is nowhere to be found in these windows, where intensely Caucasian younger members of the landed gentry are posed in tony tableaux with arch title cards explaining their activities. “With all the conveniences of modern living…Donner and Blitzen still preferred dashing through the snow,” reads one, describing a vaguely s/m scene in which Donner and Blitzen, two lissome debutantes clad in loden pant suits, pull a sleigh that holds an Anastasia-like creature dressed in a ball gown and sporting a tiara.

At Barneys, a store with quite a reputation in the field of window dressing (head honcho Simon Doonan’s recent autobiography, Confessions of a Window Dresser, has been heralded with more advance press than the second coming of the guy whose birthday is being celebrated on the 25th), the mood is deeply surreal. As the store claws its way back from bankruptcy, it isn’t taking any chances on a repetition of the notorious Hello Kitty nativity of years past. Instead, it offers a series of color-coded scenarios set in a mythical Barneys cabaret that includes the imaginative deployment of feather dusters, household cleansers, and other homely objects in Marcel Duchamp–ish ways. Maybe there aren’t any urinals or bicycle seats, but there’s pretty near everything else: the floors are tiled with In Style magazine covers (Ashley Judd’s face makes up into a nice pattern); there’s a ceiling fan covered with American Express cards, and a chandelier made of TicTacs. (Amid all the hubbub, a chartreuse cashmere Lucien Pellat-Finet cardigan resides quietly in a corner.) In a wink at its daring past, Barneys has included a signpost that points the way to a variety of hot spots including Meow Mix and the Cubby Hole—surely the first time a pair of lesbian bars has garnered cameos in a holiday window.

It’s difficult even to find the front windows at FAO Schwarz, since thronging families, as frightening in their own way as Crips or Bloods, obscure the facade of this temple of toy commerce. You have to go around the block to the rear of the store to get a look at the holiday efforts. A small corner window displays a grouping of Madame Alexander dolls done up as seraphim; the one in green, with the widest wingspread, looks like Kathleen Chalfant in Angels in America. The main window is given over to the Steiff stuffed animal company. Its theme is an animated jungle, with monkeys stirring cauldrons, beating drums, and anointing each other with spears, while a pith-helmeted, bespectacled teddy bear archeologist holds a pad with a drawing of a vase. (If the whole affair is just a little too neocolonial for your taste, at least it’s an improvement over the 1903–04 Steiff inventory, which featured a gaggle of velvet-faced “native” dolls cowering before a British policeman figure.)

It isn’t until you reach Saks Fifth Avenue that you remember what holiday displays are supposed to be about: you know, kiddies, Santa, world peace, etc. The windows tell the tale of Frannie and Annie, a 1920s brother and sister team who dress in tweeds and have the precocious air of that other sibling duo, Franny and Zooey. (With their piquant expressions and bookish miens, Frannie and Annie could well be contestants on It’s a Wise Child.) These two find a magic telescope in the attic of what Saks’s title card (and voiceover narration for people too young to read) describes as a graceful old brownstone; when trained on various sites the telescope transports the viewers to glamorous foreign locales. One window depicts Frannie and Annie dropping in on cocktail-sipping Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker types in the Moulin Rouge (no smoking, though; that’s left to a single transgressive mannequin at the Barneys cabaret); another finds them in Moscow, where they visit St. Basil’s cathedral, take in the Ballets Russes, and are untroubled by representatives of the Bolshevik government, who are curiously nowhere in attendance. In the last window, Frannie and Annie are back in the brownstone where “they suddenly hear a jolly laugh behind them—Santa Claus is in the attic!” Instead of calling the police, they accept the gift of a humongous snow globe—a nice present, surely, but suspiciously similar to the globes Saks is touting with a mighty push this season.

Saks may be doing its damnedest to recapture the magic of childhood, whatever that is, but Lord & Taylor’s Peter Pan probably comes closer to the spirit of many New Yorkers who live in child-sized houses and want what they want now! Tied to the Cathy Rigby revival currently on Broadway, the windows feature a Peter who looks uncomfortably like Alfred E. Newman, a jolie-laide Darling family, and a delicate Tinker Bell who seems to hail from a different prop shop than the rest of the ensemble (her gossamer appearance has more in common with the Victorian sprites now on view at the Frick Museum than the covers of old Mad magazines). At any rate, the familiar cast of characters flies through a number of adventures lifted from J.M. Barrie’s convoluted text (pirates, clock-swallowing crocodiles, etc.) and the whole business is certainly exhaustively animated: even Nana can’t stop nodding her head.

The creepy head over at Macy’s isn’t just nodding, it’s also pontificating. Floating behind the window surface at the 151 West 34th Street entrance, a 3-D Mayor Giuliani gives a two-minute lecture on the joys of New York, including the wonders of Macy’s, and ends by asking the public, “What miracle would you like to have happen this year?” (Apparently one answer—the miraculous midterm removal of a sitting mayor from office—hasn’t occurred to him.) Looming over the marquee is the legend “Rudolf at Macy’s.” Despite the inflated reindeer balloon accompanying this sentiment, the viewer can’t help wondering which Rudy the store is really extolling.


Let Nothing You Dismay

Mark O’Donnell’s acid-tinged Christmas novel Let Nothing You Dismay becomes rather dense in its pileups of
literary allusion and wordplay, but it seems churlish to complain that a book is too
witty. The story of a distraught ex-teacher making the New York party rounds five days before Christmas, Dismay is sprinkled with lines like “Tad didn’t even know what was being built, or destroyed, but [the construction work] always sounded like a gargantuan Darwinian battle between a groaning metallic pterodactyl and a solid-lead woodpecker about ten stories high.” That’s in one of his
carefree moments.

Tad— who’s described by a friend as a “psychonaut” (his mind drifts), though he fancies himself a stylist “just trying to apply creme rinse and a comb to our tangled lives”— never stops dispensing catchily phrased observations. Even when he goes to the bathroom, he notes that “as the fragile archipelago swirled away in the flush,” it reminds him of Gustave Doré’s drawings of Dante’s

Tad may seem encyclopedic and glib, but that’s just the kind of person you want as your proxy into the cross-cultural collisions that pass for holiday get-togethers. Having broken up with his boyfriend, been fired because of a made-up molestation charge, and faced ejection from his sublet, Tad needs to learn that while life’s not all butter and birthday cake (as Mom always says), it shouldn’t be swirled away in the flush either. This realization comes as he races downtown, uptown, and crosstown for a full day’s worth of eggnog-flavored awakening. His party/enlightenment-process slows down whenever O’Donnell (the humorist-translator who previously wrote
Getting Over Homer) strains for bon mots or condescends to Tad’s family members, but it
revives as the book ambles toward midnight, even as it spoofs well-trod territory like models and East Village performance art. By fiesta’s end, it’s clear that this is no fragile archipelago. It’s a wise, hilarious stocking stuffer, the kind to read five days before Christmas every year.


After-School Special

I know this couple who think Lou Rawls is the shit. You can look in the books on soul music and find little reference to Rawls and maybe less respect. And my friends could care less. Their devotion isn’t built on his place in the Hall of Fame, isn’t established by his skills. It isn’t even about his hits: they like the Christmas album best. What they like about Rawls–if I may tender a guess–is that while he isn’t necessarily the best, he brilliantly evokes the experience of being up really, really close to the best. He does a hell of a job selling a majesty he doesn’t quite own, summing up what a man in his niche is called upon to do, and acting it out with goblets of gusto. You suddenly realize, hey, he’s a fan too.

Everybody has a Lou Rawls, and mine is Bob Dorough. You won’t find much about Dorough in the jazz vocalist lit and some of what you will find is scandalous–let’s just say Will Friedwald, who my head says has great ears, ain’t a fan. Lesley Gourse calls him a boite singer, but goddamn if I’ve ever been in a boite in my life. To me Dorough’s voice is all but definitive of its cool-white-guy category– he’s a jazzbo before he’s jazz singer. Still is, too; his way with a song remains intact and makes the recent Right on My Way Home a string of pleasures.

Dorough humbly refers to himself as ”a singing jazz piano player,” which emphasizes the bop-inflected keyboard work he deserves to be proud of. But it also refers to the way, like other musicians who sing–Chet Baker, the early Nat King Cole, Mose Allison–he banks on atmosphere, storytelling skills. The man doesn’t have great pipes, nor dazzling technique, but he’s got the flow, a love of song and a vocal style that jumps around crazily like spontaneous vocalese. He sings jazz solos. He foregrounds an intimacy–lean in and hear this–that suggests a hepster’s line of jive and a natural born storyteller.

Born in Arkansas and raised in various Texas towns, the 74-year-old Dorough has a living-out-of-a-cardboard-suitcase kind of voice. He got the bop infection just after the war and headed for New York, where he became a cabaret-card-carrying member of the hipoisie. His vocalese version of ”Yardbird Suite” (from the 1956 Bethlehem release Devil May Care) got Miles Davis’s attention, and in the early ’60s Dorough became one of Miles’s favorite Caucasians, liked so much that he was the only singer to ever record with Miles. When the trumpeter wanted to cut a Christmas song–Lou Rawls was unavailable– he got Dorough to write and sing ”Blue Xmas,” and then they cut ”Devil May Care” and ”Nothing Like You” while they were in the studio. And then they went caroling.

Even walking the straight and narrow on those painterly Gil Evans arrangements, Dorough’s voice is so cosmically, cartoonishly cool it had to end up on Saturday morning television. And when it did, it must have seemed a long way from the jazz clubs. But Dorough’s gig as lead voice of Schoolhouse Rock–along with a generation’s recycling of any and all of its influences–has in 1998 led him back to the jazz clubs. Writing jingles, making the studio scene in Los Angeles at the onset of the Ford administration (a rough time for white hipsters everywhere), Dorough hooked up with the advertising firm that created Hai Karate, the swinger’s cologne. Together they sold ABC on the concept that education was too important to leave to the teachers, and developed Schoolhouse Rock. These were ”lessons” ”taught” with cartoons, many of which Dorough wrote and sang. Today they have refilled the memory slot once occupied by Moby-Dick in my mind; you can hear them on a four-CD (hey, Moby-Dick’s a big book) 1996 Rhino box. These days Dorough even performs ”Three Is a Magic Number” in jazz clubs.

The one bum moment on Right on My Way Home is a too cute fable about a bear, which is pushing his luck farther than ”Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here.” Dorough’s voice gives off a boyishness without forcing things; what’s wonderful about the album’s ”Moon River” is how Dorough takes the tune out of waltz time, revs it up, and escapes the winsome sigh most singers hang on the melody. Sure helps to have tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano play huckleberry friend to his Huckleberry Hound (he’s on five of the album’s 10 cuts); he and Dorough aren’t rafting the river, they’re hopping a streamliner.

As ever, there’s a flash of a Hoagy Carmichael smirk–the not-from-around-these-parts piano player who’s unimpressed with the big city. Some Dave Frishberg wordsical whimsical, too. The record ends with ”Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”; ”You’re the only cat,” Miles once told Dorough, ”who can sing that song.” Maybe that’s because Dorough doesn’t sound hung up for a minute–he’s had a good ride, and he arrives at a place he’s happy to inhabit. He ain’t sentimental. He’s a protohipster who’s lived long enough to sing Frishberg’s self-mocking ”I’m Hip.” His urbanity has slipped into suburbia, and Dorough can see the absurdity of the passage. He’s good at finding it in all kinds of situations, not the least of which, as it happens, is a 74-year-old man still holding on to his ponytail, still snapping his fingers.