December 21, 2011
The first Christmas tree that lives on vividly in my memory is the one I almost set on
fire, and had my angel not intervened, probably the house along with it. My brother had
received his first .22 rifle that year, so I deduce that he was thirteen years old, and I
was seven. We had opened our presents on Christmas eve. I have no idea how many
seven year olds can sleep all night on Christmas eve. I wasn’t one of them. Up before
dawn while the rest of the family were still snug in their beds, I snuck downstairs,
plugged in the lights, and the magic was instantly, grandly, reignited. And immediately
one of the lights shorted and blew out, sparked, and to my shock and terror flames
began licking up the side of the volatile conifer. My hand was still on the plug. I yanked
it out, ran like a deer to the kitchen and filled a glass with tap water. I threw it on the
tree and was amazed again, and of course relieved, that the fire was subdued. There
didn’t appear to be any residual damage. I went back to bed and hid under the covers.
When the tree was relit in the morning, this time by adult hands, only the errant bulb,
which kept my secret darkly, remained unlit. Only my brother suspected something was
amiss. He picked up his rifle, carefully brushed the water droplets off the wooden stock,
and quickly looked up with deadly suspicion. He caught my eye. We exchanged a
complicated glance. I quickly delved back into my new magic set.
Such is the nature of redemption that we’re sometimes rewarded with custody over the
objects of our trespasses. By the time I was twelve, I was in charge of Christmas. My
family had deferred to my flair for producing the Christmas Event at our house. The
decorations, the tree, the schedule of events: all mine. In the final year, at age 17, of
this curatorial run, I had gone conceptual: our Christmas tree, culled from the pine
forest at our country cabin in Michigan, had no decorations. It was flocked with
artificial snow and illuminated by tiny lights well hidden in its branches. It was the
farewell Christmas statement of my impresario phase. During the day it looked like a tree
standing in a wood after a snowfall. At night it was infused with stars. This delighted my
Dad, who always appreciated my genius (“Joey’s different,” he once mused), and who
had his own flair for iconoclasm. But it drew some skepticism from my Mom and
brother, who relinquished tradition with reluctance. But my brother, by then, had a
house, and a tree, and a family of his own. The mixed review it received from my mother
probably had more than a little to do with the encroaching loss it symbolized of many
things, including her family, into the world from which they came, or were becoming
absorbed. By next autumn her youngest, too, would have flown the nest. There’s a
Native American saying suggesting that a boy must put a mountain range between
himself and his mother before he can become a man. That mountain range, for me,
was the skyline of New York.
Christmas in Manhattan is a cornucopia of holiday magic of singular extravagance and
style. From the towering mother of all Christmas trees at Rockefeller Center, to its
myriad progeny all over the city, every imaginable tannenbaum springs forth to
celebrate the birth of the child upon whose sleeping face that night only the shepherds
and nobodies were permitted to gaze. The most unusual Christmas tree I’d ever
encountered was that of a designer friend of a friend which consisted of a large pine
branch suspended from the corner of the living room ceiling in his posh east seventies
apartment. It appeared to be a live branch, intruding into the apartment from outside,
was hung with upscale crystal baubles, and resonated with the austerity of my tree-in-
the-woods opus on the other side of the mountain range. I had been on the right track
after all. While keeping Christmas ever in my heart, the transience of the half-dozen
addresses under which I dwelt in my Manhattan years, and the generally modest
dimensions of the apartments, or the ownership of larger spaces, they located,
discouraged investment in significant furnishings of any kind. A wreath, a poinsettia or
two, or some ornamental contribution to the communal tree, sufficed. My rambling old
apartment on Staten Island, with its 5135 Kensington Avenue feeling, saw a return of
the Christmas impresario of my youth. Garlands, ribbons, sprigs, a grand old tree
decked out in all the timeless old magic... the place dripped with Christmas. And voices
lubricated with holiday cheer gathered each year around the baby grand while Oscar,
my loquacious zebra finch, cheek spots aglow, joined in to beat the band.
My favorite Christmas tree in literature, loosely defined, may be this very funny riff,
one of several on the subject, from Bill Watterson in Calvin and Hobbes...
That’s my dad all over, who enjoyed throwing my brother and me into consternation by
suddenly demanding, in the middle of August, and with the most wistful of longing,
“Give me my Christmas present now...”
One day in January, well into Epiphany, I was on my way to a Staten Island deli to pick
up a few items for the larder, orange juice, half and half, a bag of bagels. Several
discarded trees, forlorn with remnants, bedraggled tinsel, waited on the curb for
pick-up in this quaintest of New York City burroughs. A couple of teens, whose sure-
footed strides on the icy sidewalk overtook me, walked up to one of the trees and with a
flick of a lighter, set the volatile conifer on fire. I was amazed at how quickly the
desiccated tree went up in flames, was reduced to a charred skeleton. It virtually
exploded. They laughed and ran. Farther up the street, they ignited another. Then
another. It was quite a show. The rest of my walk to the deli was scented with the
perfume of smoldering pine, rather like incense really. Suddenly it seemed a good time
to take down my own Christmas stuff, and box it away for another year. When I got
home that’s what I did.
December 16, 2011
I love dumplings! Their moist exterior, and dry inside, is such a delectable reversal of nature. They're anapaleolithic, so I don't get to indulge them much of late. Now I'm hungry for some. I always wanted a second burger too. Birthday cake was overrated.
Oh no... Not the dreaded skinny-fat! You're young. There's plenty of toning left in your life. And never underestimate the appeal of a touch of zaftig. You're a stylish girl. You'll always have that. I feel better when my weight is under control, though. Lighter = lighter. Body, mind, and soul. And a bit of muscle, which is power, lightens the burden of carnal existence still more. I was thinking recently how when I was a youngster, except when I was sick or injured, I was transparent to myself, my body scarcely existed. I was all perception, desire, fear, and will. Seems the arc of physical life is calibrated against the influence of gravity. A quick ramp-up to escape velocity followed by a brief orbit, and a slow and inexorable decline.
It's cooler here now, in the 60s, and in the 40s at night. Soon I'll be sleeping with the windows open, in my underwear, and under a couple of quilts. The weight of all that stuff, pinning me into my winter cocoon, is somehow comforting. So unlike summer, and its preference for weightless repose, weightless dreams...
December 15, 2011
December 3, 2011
I worked at the New York University publications bureau for a couple of years when I
was in school there. That’s where I developed a lasting fondness for the Optima typeface,
an elegant sans-serif font that was used for all of the university’s publications. The
bureau was a hotbed of gay copywriters and layout artists. There were summer lunch
breaks at Washington Square park and winter weekend parties in Brooklyn Heights. I
struck up a friendship with Justin, a talented photographer who owned a beautiful Pentax
SLR that I admired. He liked my Nikormat EL. We sometimes traded lenses.
Justin derived endless mirth from my pronunciation of kitsch, with a continental i, that I had
learned from my european boyfriend. “That’s so keech!” he’d exclaim, his fingers splayed
in front of him, spastically flapping, as if to shake off a contamination, when he saw some-
We had this game where we’d walk around the Village, and cover up a portion of some
random sign with our hands, to reveal its hidden message. A STOP sign would
pronounce one of us “TOP.” There was something hilariously authoritative and deadpan
about these pronouncements, at least to two stoned sophomores. We’d approach an ad or
a set of directions and contemplate the possibilities. Manipulations could, with the help
of two hands and some well-placed fingers, get intense. The sign on the front door of my
condo for instance “If I’m not here, I’m at the beach,” could easily become “If I’m not
he, I’m the be-ach.” You catch the drift. Puns abounded.
We were meandering down 8th Street, in the general direction of Chez Madeline, an
immaculate and tiny counter with all of five stools, on Greenwich Avenue. Madeline
herself was the only help. You could get soup and a sandwich and coffee there for under
five dollars. It was a balmy summer day. Peter Allen, wearing a gorgeous yellow
flowered Hawaiian shirt, came walking up with some guy. “Hi Peter,” we said, as we
separated to let them pass. “Hi,” he said back, with a sweet smile. “I go to Rio,' rocks!”
said Justin, walking backwards, as they passed. Peter and the guy turned around. “Thank
you,” he said, walking backwards too. I took his picture, then we all turned away again.
“My next door neighbor plays that song incessantly,” I said. “It must be on a tape loop.
As soon as it ends it starts up again.”
“I like it.”
“I like it too. It hasn’t worn thin yet.”
When we got to Chez Madeline it was closed for the month of August. “Chez Madeline
will return in September,” said the sign on the door.
“Dammit!” I said. “I had a jones for her tarragon chicken salad in the worst way.”
“hez Mad,” said Justin with the sign.
“he will return...” I said back. Justin took a picture.
There was always Jane’s Patio, our default hangout on Bleecker. We were contemplating
our next destination when Justin looked across the street. Two punks were crossing in
“Oh, shit!” said Justin. “It’s Rocky. Run!” And we took off down Greenwich, with
Rocky and his henchman in hot pursuit. We rounded Seventh Avenue and headed south.
“We should split up,” Justin panted, “I’ll meet you at Jane’s,” and he veered off down
Waverly Place. Not entirely persuaded of the wisdom of this tactic, I looked back and
saw whom I assumed was Rocky chase after him. Henchman was coming for me. I threw
the camera strap across my shoulder, moved the camera to the small of my back to
steady it, and took off west on Charles.
It occurred to me, of course, that whatever this was all about, was Justin’s problem. Why
couldn’t I just stop right there, turn around, and stand my ground. But then I looked
down Charles and there was nobody out on the street. I looked back at Henchman and
changed my mind.
I ducked down the stairs of a brownstone, and found myself in a long dim hallway and
what looked like a back yard, and daylight, at the end. Enclosed. No good. Henchman
was coming down the stairs. I swerved right, pushed through a big metal door and found
myself in a boiler room. I looked madly around. Across the room was a metal stairs that
led to a hatch that I assumed opened out onto the street. I leapt up the stairs and shoved
the double-doors of the hatch open just as Henchman charged into the boiler room,
slamming the big metal door against the wall. It all happened so fast. Thank heaven the
hatch wasn’t padlocked. I hauled out onto what turned out to be Hudson Street, traffic,
and pedestrians. I slowed down. I stopped. I turned around. Henchman emerged, looked
around, and assumed an almost comic nonchalance amid the staring faces. He walked up
to me, gave me a nasty shove, and walked away. “Hey asshole,” I said. When he turned
around I took his picture. “Coming to a Post Office near you,” I said, as the steam slowly
drifted out of his ears.
“Grilled cheese with tomato slices?” said Justin.
“What else?” I said.
We closed our menus and the waitress went to post our order.
“Well that was fun,” I said.
“I thought you’d enjoy it,” said Justin, with an obliging smile.
“Mind telling me what that was all about?”
“Oh Rocky just wanted his twenty dollars back.”
“Well, he wanted to beat me up too, but he settled for getting his twenty dollars back.”
“All that for twenty dollars?”
“Well that, and the fact that I sold him a chunk of hash that turned out to be cow dung.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well that explains everything.” I rolled my eyes.
Justin took a sip of his iced tea. “You know Mark and Valerie, right?”
“With the restaurant?”
“So they’ve been to India a couple of times. To smuggle hash.”
“Yeah. Really. So after the first time, when they made this big score, they started
thinking of themselves as these big shot jet set hash smugglers. They had it packed in
spice containers and really did pull it off.”
None of this shocked me at the time. This was in the seventies, long before there was the
kind of terrorism that unnerves us today. Air travel was pretty free-wheeling. There was
no profiling, no drug-sniffing dogs, at least not in that venue, or significant security
checks, especially for an affluent couple of waspy globe-hopping restaurateurs sampling
international cuisine first-hand. I did wonder why they had risked it at all, though. They
had a successful restaurant. I kind of admired the audacity. Hash was cooler than weed.
Upscale. It had its mystique. But it still seemed a little twisted.
“They got lucky,” said Justin. “And they got lucky the next time.”
Our sandwiches came, Jane’s beloved grilled cheese and tomato dipped like croques in
eggs and grilled in butter. Served with sides of potato salad.
“I think I see where this is going...” I said.
“Yeah, so their luck finally ran out. Seems they dropped a bundle on their biggest score
yet, and it turned out to be nice little compact bricks of cow dung.”
Yeah. I said it. “Oh how keech!” complete with splayed fingers and flapping wrists,
which evoked a similar response from Justin. “Eeewwwww....” we said together, which
dissolved into the usual coda of laughter.
“So you sold Rocky cow dung?”
Justin took a bite of his sandwich. “I didn’t realize it at the time.” He chewed for a while.
“It was common knowledge around the scene that Mark and Valerie had made this big
score in India. They passed the hash around at the restaurant. A slice here, a chunk there.
I don’t even think they were in it for the money. They did sell some of it to their friends,
but it was mostly about the cachet of having it around.”
"Cachet," I intoned, raising an eyebrow and wagging my head.
"But of course."
“And everybody had the munchies, of course.”
We finished eating.
“So you sold Rocky cow dung.”
“Let’s go the pier,” said Justin. “I’ll tell you the rest of the story.”
The pier at the end of Christopher Street, being at the end of Christopher Street, was a
popular hangout, notwithstanding it being an outpost of the maritime vocational high
school. We threaded along the narrow sidewalk, brushing gingerly past the usual traffic.
We ducked into Village Photo to pick up a couple rolls of Kodachrome. We hurried past
an alternative clothing emporium, whose ultrasonic burglar alarm, supposedly audible
only to dogs, Justin could hear, and which threatened to give him a seizure. We stopped
in front of a Baskin-Robbins. They were advertising a triple-scoop special. While Justin
contemplated the comestible possibilities, I contemplated the sign. With a judicious
placement of my splayed left hand, my right forearm, and a bit of elbow, I was able to
“POOP SPECIAL - Limited Time Only.”
I could see a head-lock gathering in Justin’s slowly inflating nostrils, suppressed grin,
and bugged-out eyes, and I took off down Christopher. He chased me all the way to the
pier, where we collapsed on a bench. Bracing myself for a noogie, I squeezed my eyes
shut, and scrunched up my shoulders. But the head-lock was the prelude to a kiss. On
the cheek. And an amiably dismissive little shove-off. I rocked sideways, and back, like
one of those big inflatable, self-righting toys. A few sunbathers, couples, and small
groups were scattered around. We watched a tug churning determinately down the
Hudson toward the harbor.
“Mark and Valerie wanted some shots of the restaurant,” Justin said. “It was early one
morning, and nobody was there except Mr. Sung, the dishwasher, in the kitchen.”
“I heard Mr. Sung was in love with you.”
Justin’s ears turned to stoplights. “Where’d you hear that?”
“It’s true,” said Justin, turning sheepish. “He stroked my forearm once. I later heard that
he thought, because it’s a bit hairy, it was a mark of beauty.” He covered his face, with
cupped hands, up to the eyes, like Stefan does on Saturday Night Live. But Justin would
never mock affection, including Mr. Sung’s, and didn’t.
“So you were at the restaurant...” I said, letting him off the hook.
“Yeah... I knew by then that Mark and Valerie had this hash thingy going, but I hadn’t
heard about the cow dung debacle. So anyway I was standing on a barstool to get a high
shot of the room when I noticed what looked a lot like some chunks of hashish down in
the pot of this huge philodendron. Hanging from the ceiling at the end the bar. By the
windows. ‘What an ingenious stash,’ I thought. Of course I realize now why they threw
it there, might as well use it for fertilizer. I grabbed a few pieces and put them in my
This drew a deep guffaw from me. A dog at the end of the pier started yelping
resonantly. Justin sat there with a go-ahead-and-laugh look.
“So you smoked it then? The cow dung?”
“I got high, actually. Or thought I did. But I remember thinking ‘This is really mellow
More laughter, and more dog yelps.
“But it didn’t seem to last very long.”
“You’re killin’ me!" Belly shaking, wiping tears from my eyes. "Killin’!”
“So when I ran into Rocky, I sold him a chunk for twenty dollars. He didn’t think it was
‘mellow’, at all, of course. He ripped me a new one on the phone. Then I started
avoiding his calls. It wasn’t long after that that I heard all about the cow dung twist, and
I started hoping to hell that Rocky never heard about it. But when I saw the look on his
face across the street... well, I knew the gig was up. But he settled for just getting his
“Really.” Justin lifted the Pentax to his eye, pointed it toward lower Manhattan, and took
“How’d you get mixed up with a punk like that?”
Justin gave me a sideways glance and a rueful smile.
“Never mind,” I said.
We headed back up Christopher. What my friend Bill once called “New York light” was
slanting in from the west, and slotting down through the buildings. Our elongated
shadows preceded us on the sidewalk. We passed a stylish little restaurant, showing an
immaculately set table with a lovely little flower arrangement that inspired Justin to quip,
as if ordering from the menu “I’d like a bowl of flowers, please...” Divine, dressed in a
black turtleneck and jeans, all bald head and pencil eyebrows, came walking up with
some guy. “Hi Divine,” we said in unison, as we separated to let them pass. “Hi,” said
Divine, with a thrilling weary disdain. We let it go at that.
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