In our house we recycle and that includes Christmas bags and Christmas wrap and in that spirit (and laziness) some of the anecdotes in this piece are recycled from previous years.
It’s upon us once again. The season of gifts, of Santa, of menorahs, stockings, twinkling lights and a blogosphere decorated with memoirs of holidays past and present. The thought briefly crossed my mind to do a piece about all of the things that we can’t or aren’t supposed to do because of this year’s “C” word. But to what end? Accentuate the obvious? Never mind. For this piece I’ve said all I’m going to say about Christmas in 2020.
I was in the local Ace Hardware store yesterday looking for some holiday essentials; firewood, plenty of Scotch tape, gift tags and a pair of pliers. The pliers have nothing to do with holidays. I just wanted a small, cheap pair to remove pin bones from fish fillets.
I prefer the Ace store to Home Depot. You can get lost in both but not in the same way. At Home Depot you literally get lost just looking for a box of nails, wandering aimlessly, vanished within the canyons of towering racks. At Ace you get lost in the browsing, absorbed in the plethora of gadgets, gizmos and gimmicks.
I have a particular fondness for those old timey hardware stores because they’re fun to walk through and because I used to work in one. And I wore one of the familiar hardware store red vests; the standard uniform of the old school hardware employee (the currently popular term for employee is “associate,” a term that I resist using. “He was an ‘associate’ of the John Gotti crime family.” See?).
Retail work at Fox Hardware was one of my first jobs after graduating college. That’s what you do isn’t it? Go to college for four or more years and then set your skills aside to be a barista or to work retail. While that job paid a pittance, my years at that little hardware store in San Francisco were probably the most enjoyable of my working life and the Christmas memories some of the warmest. And so the gadgets, gizmos and gimmicks and the red vests at Ace, took me back to those Fox Hardware days and the days leading to Christmas.
Arthur was the store manager at Fox. He was a busy little man who flitted around the 2 ½ levels of the store (main floor, basement and mezzanine), making certain that everything was just so. Arthur also took charge of the window dressing, and whatever he might have lacked in management skills, and he was a decent, fair man, he more than made up for with his mastery at setting up a window display (Arthur could sometimes be very blunt. When Cora and I were dating he saw us walking to work together one morning. “Are you two sleeping together?” he asked. It’s always been my contention by the way that sleeping, per se, is never the issue as its something of a benign activity.). Arthur’s Christmas displays were warm and enchanting, complete with a small electric train. You knew Christmas was coming when Arthur climbed into the window with his boxes of lights, decorations and holiday magic. Like children excited over dad getting the Christmas lights out from storage, the thrill of the coming holidays spread throughout the store when Arthur did up the holiday window.
The holiday party
I’ve experienced the spectrum of holiday parties. There were the high end parties when my wife worked for Clif Bar, the energy bar company headquartered in nearby Emeryville. Those parties were lavish and legendary. The venues were alive with brilliant holiday décor and the menu was grand and sumptuous. The first one we attended was in the Napa Valley and included overnight accommodations in Calistoga; good thing since one of Cora’s co-workers and I I indulged in enough Christmas cheer to get lit like the Times Square Christmas tree. The second, also in the Napa Valley, was held in the caves of a winery. There was the one held in a movie theatre and another in an art museum. While Cora gabbed with co-workers I went straight for the raw bar and indulged in oysters, sushi and cocktails. Clif spared no expense.
For me though, the most memorable and enjoyable office parties didn’t include elegant appetizer platters or flutes of champagne presented by roaming servers; no bartender, no band, no DJ. They weren’t held in a restaurant, winery or a party boat. The best parties, the warmest, most intimate and kindly were our Fox Hardware Christmas parties.
But for a turkey and a ham and a cash allowance for beverages and incidentals (read, booze) which the owners of the store provided, the catering was done by the employees. Entirely potluck, the holiday spread included salads, appetizers, pastas, ethnic specialties, cookies, cakes, pies and a large portion of fellowship. What made those parties special was that they were ours; organic, grass roots affairs planned by a few of the employees and set in motion by the whole staff.
None of us, save the owners and manager, were remotely comfortable financially. We all lived on a low budget, had no mapped roadway to success, yet, because we enjoyed a unique camaraderie that I’ve never really experienced since, we loved our jobs and each other’s company. There was no pettiness, no grousing, no shirking and no malicious gossip. The silly politics that pollute the work environment today were largely non-existent. Employee conflicts were settled amicably between the employees with no thought of running to H.R.
The white couch
If there is one constant to every office party it’s that each year someone has a few too many cups of alcohol laced eggnog or punch and then pulls off a performance that lives forever in company lore.
The single most memorable that I recall took place at our store manager’s beautifully appointed flat in a building on San Francisco’s Russian Hill. He had a beautiful white couch that faced a picture window with a panoramic view of the bay and the Golden Gate. The party was merry and joyful, with a full food board, disco music and dancing. It was a jolly affair right up until the time that the store’s locksmith, Daniel, threw up his Christmas cheer and the side dishes, salads and ethnic specialties that he’d eaten, all over that beautiful white couch. After a quick cleanup and a few expressions of “Gee, where did the time go,” the party adjourned.
Our store was located at 4th Street near Mission in San Francisco’s Downtown. We were just blocks from Union Square and the City’s major shopping district. The multi-storied Macy’s was alight for Christmas; every window on every floor was graced with a big green wreath trimmed with a red bow. Across the street facing Macy’s was the majestic Union Square Christmas tree. At the corner of Stockton Street and Geary, the flower stand that looked like a miniature cable car was aflame with bright red poinsettias. During the holidays the stand was decorated with a mechanical Santa pedaling furiously on a bicycle.
Union Square was where you did your upscale shopping; Gucci, Gump’s and the other literati of retail. One Christmas I went to Shreve and Company to shop for a jewelry item for Cora. A smartly dressed fellow asked me if he could be of service as he handed me a flute of Champagne. It was about then that I realized that I was in over my credit card limit. Shreve is one of those stores where if you have to ask the price you really should be somewhere else.
Below: Christmas downtown. L – R. Macys. A street musician on Market St. An ornament on the Union Square tree reflects the square.
On Christmas Eve and the days approaching, the Fox Hardware crew would gather after closing time, at the Keystone Room. The Keystone was a dive bar on the ground floor of a semi-seedy residence hotel at the corner of 4th Street and an alley named Jessie Street (named for Jessie Fremont, wife of a California Senator).
The Keystone was your typical dive with the typical and required dive appointments. The barstools were upholstered with cracked red vinyl – a dive can’t be a proper dive without fractured upholstery. A proper dive also has to open at the crack of dawn and cater to grizzled old guys wearing ball caps, starting off the day with a Coors or a screwdriver. Mimosa sippers need not enter a dive. The bathroom sink has to look like it’s never seen a can of cleanser. The featured, and only, snack at a proper dive is stale pretzels served in little wooden bowls. Finally, during the holiday season the mirrors and back bar should be adorned with strings of multi-colored lights – the big old timey C-9 bulbs. Some dives opt to have the lights on year round.
For all their warts though, a dive can radiate with a warm, welcoming glow. There’s no pretension, no games and quite likely no Grey Goose or Johnnie Blue; you’ll have to settle for Gordons and J&B and a headache in the morning, which you can rid yourself of by showing up at the same dive for some hair off the dog.
On Christmas Eve we would gather in the bar, at least those of us without families, and toast into the evening. By and by a few would drift out followed shortly by the rest, headed for the bus stops and the various lines that would lead home. I would cross Market St and on to Stockton Street, moving in and out of the crowds pouring out of Macy’s. There weren’t so many homeless in those days but every now and then you’d pass a down and outer propped, in sad irony, up against the wall of a highbrow jewelry store. A scene from a modern day Christmas Carol maybe?
At the corner of Geary and Stockton I would wait in the chill evening with the other nine to fivers and the last minute shoppers packing department store shopping bags, all of us headed west and home on the 38 Line.
The Christmas codfish
Before I moved out of my parents house it was understood that the big holidays were to be celebrated in the home, Christmas Eve and Christmas among them. That rule had to be tweaked during my college days when I started dating Denise, my first serious girlfriend. Being a distance runner with a limitless raging metabolism having two Christmas Eve dinners was not only not a problem it was an opportunity.
While Denise’s dad was an old southern fried racist from Kentucky, her mom’s side was Italian, steeped in tradition that included a big seafood spread for Christmas Eve. The much ballyhooed showpiece was seafood pasta in red sauce adorned with a delicacy that I’d heard of but never tried – bacalao or salted codfish. That pasta was advertised by Denise and family as the best thing this side of Genoa and so when I arrived at her house after having Christmas Eve dinner with my own family I anticipated a dinner that I would never forget. To this day some 45 years later I still haven’t forgotten that dinner.
Italian moms are guided by some genetic code that compels them to load up the guest’s plate with mounds of food that would make a sumo wrestler flinch. Seated at the big table with Denise and her family and with a plate groaning with a heap of food, I speared a chunk of the codfish and, as Nonna Maria had taught me when I was a mere babe, I deftly twirled linguine onto my fork.
The moment that the fish hit my tongue my body wanted to expel that rude intrusion. Panic and an immediate cold sweat as I realized that there was no way that fish would reside in my stomach for more than a few seconds before rushing back up carrying with it a tide of mom’s dinner. With the chunk of offending fish pocketed in a handy corner of my mouth I turned to the creator of that finned Frankenstein, “Delicious,” I lied.
Is it a chemical reaction between food and saliva that makes a hunk of nasty food taste worse with every passing second? Feigning an excuse to use the bathroom I managed an escape that allowed me to flush the foul fish back to its original home in the sea. I don’t recall how I managed to get through the remainder of the meal. I suppose that as we sometimes do with traumatic events I’ve managed to hide it in the far, dark corners of my mind.
It’s almost Christmas and the tree is doing quite well. During most years the tree has started to shed dry needles by this time. Maybe the tree has retained its freshness because Jessica and the kids went to a tree farm and cut it down. It was the first time since our first Christmas that Cora and I didn’t go along to select the tree. We were going to go but in the end Cora and I got lazy and decided to skip the longish drive.
They did well. It’s a fine tree, very full, not too tall or too short and without a single gap. The best feature is that it fit right into the tree stand without a struggle. Getting a tree in the tree stand was for many years a seasonal drama in our home.
For years we had a stand that was little more than a big green plastic bowl with four eye screws to hold the tree in place. Most years the trunk would slide right into the stand. Tighten the four eye screws and everything was holly jolly. When we moved into a house with a cathedral ceiling the family lobbied for a taller tree which meant the base would be thicker and didn’t always fit neatly into the stand. That meant about an hour of bashing away at the tree with a hatchet, a pruning saw and a torrent of billingsgate that echoed up and down the street. The family would huddle in the back of the house, the dog would go to the back of her crate and I imagine that the neighbor lady turned to her husband and chuckled, “His tree isn’t fitting in the stand again this year.” Once the tree had been battered and coerced into the stand the family would sigh, the dog would stick a tentative nose out the crate and the neighbors would share their annual laugh. As for me, I visited the liquor cabinet and had a short commune with the Christmas spirits to take the edge off.
The tree stand problem was solved during one of our saddest of Christmas seasons. Our daughter Jessica and her husband had just separated and she had moved to an apartment complex that looked nice from the outside but lost its lustre once you drove through the gates. You noticed that the place had seen better days and transients were crawling through a hole in the cyclone fence.
Jess had kids and of course they expected a tree even if she might not have been up for Christmas that year. And so she and I picked up a small tree, the only time I’ve ever been taller than our Christmas tree. Even Jessica was taller than the little waif. We got it to her apartment and found that the tree was actually too small for the bowl. The eye screws were too short to secure the tree so it just leaned and flopped around in the bowl.
I went to the nearby chain hardware store and found the same big bowl. I asked one of the workers, “Do you have any stands for people who want something smaller than a Giant Sequoia in their living room?” That probably wasn’t the most diplomatic way of phrasing it. With an arched eyebrow, a stink eye and whatever patience she had left after a full day of kowtowing to assholes like me who thought they had clever things to say she answered, “No this is the only one we have.”
“But you sell small trees. What do you offer people who buy small trees?” I asked.
“We suggest that they get some small wooden blocks to use as shims.”
I looked at her incredulously. I was about to offer that I just wanted to hold up a Christmas tree not start a home improvement project, but I decided that I’d about used up the last of her holiday patience.
At Target I found an even BIGGER stand. It was just about the size of our toilet bowl. Sears had the same big bowl. I was about to throw in the towel and just buy a bag of concrete and cement the tree into the plastic bowl when it dawned on me; Pastime Hardware. Pastime Hardware is a few miles down the highway but it’s well worth the drive because it’s an old school Ace Hardware store.
Within a minute of walking into Pastime I found a metal stand that transcends the cheap plastic bowls. It’s the tiger tank of tree stands; a stout steel monster that’ll accommodate anything from a sapling to the White House Christmas tree. Jessica’s tree fit neatly in the stand, ready for her and the children to decorate. Happily, that stand and Jessica are safely abiding in the family home. She spent only one Christmas in that apartment.
The Christmas lists
It’s long been popular to share Christmas lists, not gift requests, but lists of favorite holiday carols and movies. And so in the spirit of giving here are my lists.
Unless the lyrics are vile, I don’t believe that there is bad music or bad taste. Music, like religion, is a personal thing and long ago when my kids were teens and they played rap from the morning till night I learned to be open and to appreciate some of their music. There are no bad carols, just the ones you like. My favorites in no particular order are:
Last Christmas – Jimmy Eat World
Feliz Navidad – Jose Feliciano
Christmas Night in Harlem – Louis Armstrong
What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’) – Louis Prima
Christmas Boogie – Sugar Chile Robinson
Honky Tonk Christmas – Alan Jackson
Boogie Woogie Christmas – Brian Setzer
And because they reflect the holiday spirit:
Happy Xmas (War is Over) – John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Grownup Christmas List – Barbara Streisand
The Christmas Guest – Johnny Cash
Movies? Unlike music there are bad movies. Sometimes we glom onto a real turkey. We call them guilty pleasures and I’ve got more than my share. My list of favorites changes year to year. In no particular order:
A Christmas Carol – George C. Scott version
Joyeux Noel – A film about the World War I Christmas truce.
El Camino Christmas – This is probably a pretty bad movie but I watched it a few years back and turned it into a late night guilty pleasure.
Lethal Weapon – Yeah I know, but it counts because it takes place during Christmas – just like Die Hard.
Bad Santa – Do NOT watch this movie with anyone under 21. It’s Billy Bob Thornton doing what he does best – playing a disgusting drunk.
You’ve probably noticed that some of the traditional classics are missing.
A Christmas Story – It’s worn and tired. Go ahead, “Shoot your eye out kid.”
It’s a Wonderful Life – It’s a great film but awfully long.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – I found out this year that Randy Quaid (Cousin Eddie) is batshit crazy. I have put this on the back burner for a while.
Those are my favorites. Feel free to share yours.
This is one of the few years when I didn’t read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I have a bent and tattered paperback edition that I pull from the shelf every year about a week before Christmas. By now I know many of the passages by heart. It’s a Christmas story to be sure but maybe it should be made required reading every three months or so to just to remind ourselves of the virtue of human kindness and of the possibilities of personal reclamation.
Years ago Cora and I went to Christmas Mass at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I’m not much of a church guy but on Christmas I try to accompany Cora. Grace Cathedral is a grand structure on Nob Hill in The City and the mass is a grand ceremony. The pipe organ booms in the magnificent hall while a procession of clergy and choir walks solemnly up the aisle to the altar. Years ago in his sermon, Reverend Michael Barlowe suggested, “Along with the fellowship of sharing, along with remembering past Christmases, this season is also an opportunity to consider the Christian messages of hope, peace and love. It isn’t an easy message. And it flies in the face of all we see around us; suffering, hate, war…The (Christmas) message of hope is still there. A beacon for the whole world, needed today more than ever.”
The Reverend Barlowe’s words are as true this year as when he said them in 2012.
Below: Ghosts of Christmases Past
First Christmas together. Save the one Hallmark ornament most of our ornaments were paper.
The Dickens Faire
Over the years we’ve collected ornaments to mark places visited and life’s events. A memorial to our Rainey; Carmel; Calaveras camping; The White House; Our daughter’s first Christmas.
Banner photo: Lexi in her 2020 holiday garb.