Christmas In New York– 2009

What can I say about Christmas in New York? It looks like a winter carnival, smells like lasagna, and usually feels pretty cold. If it’s NOT too cold, New Yorkers complain. “It’s too hot! It doesn’t feel like Christmas!” they bleat, yet if it IS too cold and snowy, by February they are dreaming of throwing their Blackberries onto the subway tracks and heading to Hawaii.

I myself rarely travel to New York for the Christmas holidays– specifically, Brooklyn and Staten Island– because anything below sixty degrees is too cold for me, my blood having thinned after thirty-one years in balmy, sun-kissed Florida. This year I decided at the very last minute– sorry, Jeff– to go and surprise them all because my sister Lois and her husband Mike were driving up from Port St. Lucie on Interstate 95– yes, DRIVING through all those states which, let’s face it, form nothing but one big factory outlet from northern Florida to Washington, DC.

I landed in Newark on the 23rd. and met my friend Stephen at Volare, an Italian restaurant on West 4th. Street in Manhattan. What an excellent place! He had discovered it recently and remarked on the excellence of their Manhattans, and so we each had two along with a plate of appetizers. We commented on the fact that we had known one another for forty years, having started high school together in 1969. (That was before disco, Madonna, rap, and Lady Ga Ga.) He looks better than I do, having retained all his hair and much of his sense.  It was nice to sit in that warm and red and gold glowing place and reminisce. Here’s to another forty years, Stephen! (Jeff– next year, I promise! Or you’ll just have to come to Florida. After all, I’ve been here for thirty-one years.)

I surprised Mom at home later that evening– the phone call at the front door, the subsequent ringing of the bell, the look of sheer delight and surprise on her face when she saw that her eldest, her favorite, her prince had come home for Christmas. Lois and Mike and Montana (their Yorkie) were in the upstairs apartment, sound asleep, and soon I plopped onto the living room sleeper sofa. It seemed like I only slept a few minutes before I awoke to my brother-in-law Mike, finger to his lips, whispering that I should walk into the kitchen where Lois and Mom were having coffee. The look on her face was priceless… the words from her mouth not so priceless– “I thought it was Peter Boyle comin’ down the hallway!” Peace and good will to you, too, dear sister.

My brother Tony was suitably surprised when he showed up later that day, presents in hand, looking good and happy and recovering nicely from shoulder surgery– so no tight hugs, please.

That evening we met at our sister Gina’s in Staten Island, to have our traditional Christmas Eve dinner of seven fishes. Or nine. Or eleven. Who could say? Everyone leapt onto various electronic devices to Google the details of that tradition, which basically is just another reason for Italian families to get together and eat. When Gina saw me she gasped, trembled, and burst into tears. Very emotional! It was only later that Mom and I realized that the surprise and shock were probably not a good idea for Gina, having only last year been implanted with a defibrillator.

We sat– well, first we had cocktails– the five of us in from Brooklyn; Gina and husband and two kids; and the husband’s sister Annie and her husband George and their daughter Caitlin. (George is Irish.) There was food enough for a Roman legion, but we managed to eat through most of it, like locusts with lots of vowels in our names. There’s a point when somebody produces a box of Italian pastries, which always elicits detailed discussion:  “Annie, where did you get these?”  “Right?!? I know !! From that place on Hylan near the store that used to be next door to the pizzeria.”  “Romano’s? That’s where we got those candied almond favors for Maria Scaccialotti’s wedding that she had to get married right outta high school.”  “No, not Romano’s, the other place past the dump.”  “OH, Tuttocarbo’s Bakery!”  “Yeah, except they don’t own it no more, the Spinzanas from New Dorp bought it but decided to keep the sign.”  Of course the pastries are always perfect with coffee, and you somehow find room atop the spaghetti with clam sauce, lobster tails, stuffed calamari, fried shrimp, and scungilli salad, all sauced and tossed and amazing and plentiful. And you talk and laugh and yell, even if the person you are talking two is six inches away. It’s all so lively and exhausting and you wish you could remember forever all the funny things everyone says and does…

Christmas Day everyone came to our house, and Mom made a huge lasagna, stuffed escarole, sweet potatoes,  and a ham. It’s like we hadn’t eaten for months… I distinctly recalled saying to Gina the night before that I would never eat again, but I guess I must have slept off all that seafood. It was so good being there with everyone; Mom always puts out the old decorations that we made as kids, and things our father made, so it’s like going back in time for the few days that I visit. The baby Jesus is wrapped in a little piece of paper towel, which is removed on Christmas morning, and I feel like I’m twelve years old again, listening to Mom, doing what I’m told, and making everyone laugh as much as I can.

Saturday Lois and Mike and Mom and I went to a diner out in Bay Ridge, even though the house was still stuffed with food. It was cold and rainy, and everyone wanted to escape from the four walls, so we went to one of Mom’s favorite places. She didn’t exactly know where it was– “we don’t go by streets, we go by landmarks!”– so Mike almost drove the wrong way into a one-way street when Mom told him to make a left. Mom and Lois and I started waving our arms in the air, all trying to alert him to that fact, but only strange, garbled confusion came out of our mouths; it was like he was driving three excitable Kreplachian people to lunch.

Sunday was sunny and beautiful, and I had no trouble flying home to Florida except for an hour delay on my Detroit to Orlando leg. And that wasn’t bad, because I had never been to Michigan so I suppose one of these days I will have to by a Michigan magnet for my refrigerator door. (Does it mean you’ve been in a state when you are just in an airport?)

Kirk elected not to travel north this year, so we had Christmas with our new floor when I got back to Florida. Maybe we’ll go up next year together, for longer, because there are so many people to see and so many meals to indulge in. And I want to shop in the Italian stores on Eighteenth Avenue so I can bring some REAL prosciutto back to Florida. And maybe one of those giant cheeses like what Lucy snuck onto the plane.

Christmas– it’s all about calories!

Nuts for The Nutcracker– My First Ballet


Nuts ?

It’s not that I never wanted to attend a ballet; it’s just that I never consciously made the effort to buy tickets to a show and then actually attend– you know, the whole process. I’m a gelatinous blob in many ways, figuring that I have the rest of my life to “catch up.”  E.g., I’ve never seen the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. But I will… one day.

Oh wait… I did see Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a troupe of male ballerinas who, after you laugh hysterically for the first ten minutes, cause you to sit up and realize that they are actually exceptionally accomplished.

So, at his urging, Kirk and I met a few friends at The Bob Carr last night for a performance of  The Nutcracker,  staged by Robert Hill, the Orlando Ballet’s new Artistic Director. I’d really no idea what to expect– I looked up the story on Wikipedia and got the gist, but was pleasantly surprised at the fact that I knew all the songs already. I turned the experience into a one-man hum-along! Kidding; the only occasional extraneous noise was provided by a small child behind me who insisted on unwrapping and then playing with his souvenir Nutcracker RIGHT THERE, followed by a hissed  “not NOW, Madison!!”

As far as I could tell, the ballet’s storyline is about a family who gives a large Christmas party for the entire population of Mitteleuropa. There’s a lot of gesturing and folk dancing, the requisite funny old couple, and thousands of children with ADHD. I was amazed that they were able to jam that many people onstage, but they did it with grace and precision. (Why wasn’t I encouraged to take ballet lessons when I was a child?? I’m just asking.) Soon a magician uncle arrives to distribute presents, and we are treated to three mechanical dancing dolls who make the Stepford wives look like jellyfish. Incredible! They caused me to want to sit up straight in my seat, erect, but then I had to slouch down again because Madison couldn’t see past my head.

The little girl protagonist is gifted with a nutcracker; being that the original story was written in 1816, this is understandable. These days Madison would most likely prefer a Barbie who shoots miniature WMD’s at Midge. But the little girl loves her nutcracker and proceeds to crack open treats for all the children on stage who gather and cheep and lift up their hands to her like little birds.

Apparently she ate some bad walnuts because that night the little girl dreams that the house has been overrun by rats and mice. Nice, right? Things were not so perfect in Merrie Olde England, I tell you. And you just KNEW the exterminator was not going to be paying any calls during Christmas week.

A troupe of soldiers assails the vermin, and all is well; the little girl’s dream becomes more involved and we are treated to beautifully hallucinogenic visions of snowflakes, sugarplum fairies, Russian dancers, and living candies. Entrancing! I was totally enchanted… even Madison was quiet (or maybe he had been dragged out of the theatre to be locked inside the family’s SUV).

The little girl eventually wakes up, clutching her nutcracker, and the ballet ends. The two hours (with break) flew by like magic! I felt like I was five years old again, and idly wondered about just what type of holiday liqueur would put me into the same happily comatose state as those bad walnuts did the little girl.

And I just checked the TV schedule to see if  It’s A Wonderful Life is playing… and it’s the ONLY thing on TV !


The tree: silver aluminum from the 1950’s, complete with the attendant wheezing, clanking color wheel.

The ornaments: from family and friends, including a tiny tree that Carol painted in the 1980s, and hand-sewn figures from David Kenny’s mother. Atop the tree– David’s Star!

The menorah: from; Kirk has some Jewish blood from the 1700’s. Who knew? He was a fur trapper in the Old Northwest. Probably sold a fur stole to Mrs. Rogers– wholesale!

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all our friends and family!

PS … for a warm Hanukkah chuckle, click on my friend  Judy Lobo’s link right here:

Matinee Movie Mayhem In 1960’s Brooklyn

Joan In Tights

Winter break always reminds me of the Christmas vacations of my youth. In 1960s Catholic Bay Ridge, there was no such thing as “winter break;” you’d hear “break” in commands like “if you don’t come in the house when I call you I’m gonna break both your arms and legs,” to which the only reply was “how can I come in the house if I get broken legs?”

These Christmas vacations were mainly for kids but I think it gave the nuns a vacation as well because in those days they had 50 to 60 pupils per class, and none of us were allowed to have ADHD or peanut allergies; you just sat still and tried not to wheeze. Imagine the tension! And we always wondered where the nuns went for Christmas vacation– did they go visit other nuns? What else would YOU do if you were a nun? Sometimes we imagined them running crazily throughout the convent in bras and slips, smoking cigarettes and screaming, but who could say?

I think we usually got two weeks off. In those days it snowed a LOT, and it was often very cold, but we were bundled up and sent outside anyway. We did the same things we did the rest of the year, only slower. What we liked to do was, during a thaw, dam up the flowing water in front of somebody’s house, which would invariably freeze over in the middle of the following night. Two or three parking spaces– gone ! I think we probably set off this current radical change in weather patterns.

In those days, for 75 cents we could go to the movies, and we often did. For six bits you could sit in the Fortway Theatre for six hours between lunch and dinner, watching bad movies and giving grief to the matrons. Ahh, the matrons! They were basically vacation nuns, serving the same purpose– to keep us out of our mothers’  hair during the day so that they could go to the A&P and the beauty parlor and drink rum and Coke. If a movie was particularly boring, we’d drop nickels and summon the matrons with their flashlights to come help us find them, or we’d spill popcorn or sodas (accidentally) and then put our feet up while we watched her sweep the mess up. God forbid if the film snapped or clogged the projector and started to burn; pandemonium would ensue as the matrons ran around trying to keep order while we stamped our feet, screamed, and threw Dots at the screen.

And who could forget the popcorn lady? While filling your cup, she’d stare off into the distance, knowing instinctively when the cup was full. She had a dyed blonde beehive and blue eye shadow, and was probably in her forties. One time I asked for “a small dry,” meaning “a small tub of popcorn, no butter,” and she snarled “whaddya think this is, a cocktail lounge?” I only saw her smile when the toadish theatre manager was around.

I’m sure we saw many, many different movies, but it seems to me that we were always sitting in front of some Joan Crawford potboiler that involved an axe murder or a stabbing. In Berserk  she played a circus ringleader in tights who was trying to run a show, for crying out loud, as performers experienced gruesome deaths all around her. Of course, that kept the circus patrons coming back for more! (Folks is folks.) In I Saw What You Did,  her lover stabbed her to death as he embraced her, but not before she gave HELL to some young teenagers who were harrassing them. Strait Jacket  featured Joan freshly released from a mental hospital for killing her husband and his lover years before, and of course another series of murders takes place around her as soon as she settles into her daughter’s home. In both Berserk  and Strait Jacket  her daughters were responsible for the murders, which neatly foreshadowed the real-life drama Joan and her real-life daughter Christina would re-live during the Mommie Dearest fiasco.  

Joan, Still Alive

Were we children affected by these movies? Of course not. There was no discussion; we were sent to the movies and left to deal with any issues and to sort it out amongst ourselves. No pampering; no pandering. We knew we were seeing something fake, and the fact that Joan Crawford was up there on the screen experiencing mayhem somehow made it all laughable.

It wasn’t always about horror, though; we all sat through The Bible, and the theatre was actually completely silent for a few seconds when Adam and Eve showed up naked, but then the hooting began. And Disney sent a tour bus to the Fortway one day, with Annette Funicello inside, and sixteen million of us surrounded the theatre, blocking traffic, ready to welcome her. She never got out, though; upon seeing the boiling crowd of us, she opened a window a little bit and waved. What did she think we were going to do, tear her clothes off and grab fistfuls of her bouffant? I was so disappointed, because I loved Annette!

Annette, My Love

My mother tells me that, these days, the streets are empty of kids during Christmas vacation. Apparently they’re all inside on their computers or thumbing electronic devices in front of their television sets. They’ll never know the pleasure and community of crowding into an old movie palace and just being lousy rotten kids for a few hours. Every kid should experience that, especially during winter break…  and the memories would last longer than two weeks.