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!