Thursday, December 24, 2020

A New York Christmas, in Nebraska

When I lived in New York City (1997-2018), I worked retail, which meant that any vacation time between November 15th and January 15th was usually not possible. Much later, when I side-stepped to the home office, I'd take a ten-day vacation during Thanksgiving, using the weekends as bookends and only using three vacation days, as the office was closed on Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

That was when I'd travel back home to Omaha, knowing that most of my family would be available at some point during that week. Mom was happy to see me, I could relax a little, and my agenda was simple: just tell me when and where I had to be, and what I should wear.

The Holidays? I'd spend it in New York, generally by myself. I'd socialize a little, usually on New Year's Eve, although there were times when I preferred to find a quiet corner of Central Park (I recommend Hans Christian Anderson) an hour before the fireworks and 10K Midnight run. I'd ruminate and marinate in my thoughts, and then be part and apart of everything around me.

That's one of the archetypes of New York... a little bit Marty, a little bit Holly Golightly... singular and single. Romanticized a little, even by me. "Hopeful romantic". I was social enough, but really, I perfected the art of social distancing years before it became a survival skill. I'd be happy to spend a Sunday in bed, napping, snacking, reading, surfing, my entire world defined by the kitchen, the bathroom, and my apartment. About once a week I'd meet friends, but I was...not content, but relieved in the routine of my life. Not happy, but accepting. (Then I flipped the script back to disquiet anger, gave a one-day notice to my employer, and a month later I was back in Nebraska.)

Christmas Day would be spent opening the box my mother shipped to my office a week earlier. I'd dress, grab lunch at the deli run by Yemeni immigrants, and take the subway into Manhattan. Now, in most of the country, cities are mostly closed on Christmas Day. Not New York. With the amount of tourists visiting and the large number of Jews in search of Chinese and a movie, a lot of the city was accessible, and filled with lots of pedestrians, no matter what the weather. The weather was usually above 30 degrees, the sidewalks were meticulously bare, and the City is one of the best places to walk. Density, intriguing shops and parks, and a subway station if you needed to go someplace far and quickly.

I'd be out among the teeming hordes, wandering, taking pictures to share online, making a small effort to celebrate the holiday and have a nice day off. New York is always a magical city, no matter if it's Christmas or August 12th. There's always something to be discovered, like wandering through a theater. Even if there's a ghost light on stage, you know there's narrow hallways to explore, props and trap doors and fly catwalks and little bits of history on the walls. But when there's a show on stage, all that spirit gets channeled onto the stage and out into the audience. New York in December is like that Broadway musical. The City puts on a show, with numerous Christmas tree lightings, lights strung across small town Main Streets in all five boroughs, window displays that rival the Met Gala, and of course all the areas of town you avoid the rest of the year because of the tourists, but tolerate because, yeah, you're a resident of New York, it's like living in a movie, but dangit, this time, it feels like a Hallmark holiday movie, and maybe you'll get that random Meet Cute that you read about in the Sunday New York Times marriage announcements.

It was Christmas, and I made the effort. When the City offers so much beautiful set designs, on the greatest stage in the world, you have to go out and photograph it, even if that camera is an old smartphone with a 5-megapixel camera and the screen is the size of a credit card. Unlike most tourists, there aren't any specific memories attached to those photos. Put them in a random slideshow, and I couldn't tell you when I took each photo. Something caught my eye, the composition was interesting, and in a small bit of empowered self-esteem, I figured others would enjoy the photos. They were my Christmas cards, randomly scattered, not addressed to anyone in particular. (Me, the hopeful romantic, used Valentines Day instead for personal missives.)

This is my third Christmas since moving back in the Summer of 2018.
This year, it's on hold. My German mother, probably for the first time in her life, which includes World War II) has not put up a Christmas tree. (We have a small fake tree in front of the garage, festooned with lights.) Tonight, we opened up the crates from the basement and did a little decorating, but it's more Winter than Christmas. (You can leave a wreath up until at least Lent, and maybe longer.)
We'll repeat the same procedure as Thanksgiving; dishes are selected, and my brother trades servings from his kitchen with ours.
Gifts...are mostly for the nieces and nephews. I've given up expecting anything specific, and I am sometimes surprised. But like I mentioned above, just tell me when and where I need to be, and I'll fulfill my obligations happily.
This year, my parents and I will be experiencing my New York Christmas. Staying at home embellished with a few decorations, opening a few gifts, talking on the phone, eating some fun food, and quietly anticipating the new year.

Yeah, there's a bit of nostalgia during the holidays. What I miss most about New York City is the discovery, no matter what neighborhood you might find yourself. I've taken photos of items piled on the curb awaiting trash pickup (and even schlepped home a few items). I've taken numerous photos of the abstract remnants of subway advertisements ripped from their frames, awaiting replacement. I miss the diversity, the opportunity, and the people. People I've known for years, and the people I know for a few seconds as our paths cross in opposite directions.

Will I be nostalgic for Christmas 2020? No. I don't think I'll ever be nostalgic for 2020. I'll remember it, just as I've remembered many other events of fortitude, where you boast of survival during adversity, because that's life. It's a sense of accomplishment and survival, like a smallpox scar.

I hope we can meet again soon. May 2021 be a better year, a year of progress and hope and opportunity. I keep hoping for that Meet Cute, although I'll probably not recognize it until I'm walking up the stairs. I guess that's why Hallmark keeps making movies...