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Merry Christmas Baby

Letter From California

December 24, 2003

“Thanks,” he tells me, pocketing the change, and then “can I be honest with you?” I nod, having always favored honesty. “What I’m really trying to do is scrape together ten bucks tonight. That would make a big difference to a guy like me.” I tell him I understand, but hang on to the single twenty in my wallet. “That’s OK,” he says. “I’m going uptown to Forty-Second. Grand Motherfuckin’ Central. Sometimes I get lucky up there.”

I’m coming back from Manhattan, but heading north because the downtown 5 doesn’t stop at Grand Army, so I’ve had to catch a 3 back up from Franklin. This is where I’ve met my friend. “Check this out,” he tells me, holding up a commemorative 2002 World Cup coin. “What you think that’s worth?” I tell him I have no idea. “Me either man,” he says, “me either.”

It’s cold outside at Flatbush, maybe twenty degrees, and I flip my collar up and head back to the apartment. It’s supposed to warm up, heading in to Christmas, but I’m pointed toward California, my first time back in a while. This year’s Christmas trip west is the reverse of last year’s, when my girlfriend and I came to New York and stayed at the somewhat swanky Stanhope Hotel on the Upper East Side. The twenty-fifth brought a spectacular snowstorm, complete with lightning-illuminated fresh powder in Central Park. We even found a restaurant where I had a turkey dinner. I was happy.

***

My bag is packed, the place is clean, but my flight’s still five hours away and I’ve nothing to do. I repeatedly check the small gas stove in my studio to make sure it’s off and that I haven’t subversively turned it back on while checking that it’s off again. I’m terribly obsessive-compulsive, but it’s thankfully eclipsed by my far worse problems. The car service is supposed to come at two to take me to Kennedy, then six hours on a plane across the country. They’ve bumped the terror alert status to “Orange” on the eve of my departure, which I figure will only serve to piss off Irish Catholic extremists. I say pick one color and leave it alone- we all know it’s rough out there.

Acevido Car Service is a bargain to the airport at twenty-five bucks, but they’re not splurging on springs either. The ride out is the bumpiest I’ve ever had. My driver is smiling a lot and talking to me, but I can only make out two words: “Monday” and “chicken.” He’s either telling me that people are afraid of post-weekend traffic, or that he’s getting his favorite dish tonight. I smile and nod, and say “it’s true” when he pauses, and also throw in the word “Kennedy” frequently so he remembers where we’re going.

Jet Blue has made a fortune by offering select routes and cutting out in-flight meals. They still give you blue potato chips and every seat is equipped with satellite TV. I find myself watching the Classic Sports Channel, and a replay of the Giants’ heartbreaking loss to the Angels in the sixth game of the 2002 World Series. For a life-long San Francisco baseball fan, this is the perfect compliment to an Orange alert status. I turn it off in the sixth inning, while they’re still ahead. The girl next to me is scribbling violently in ballpoint, updating her personal journal. I keep my head pointed at the seat in front of me, but shift my eyes to see if I can read what she’s writing. “Get life together” and “why am I alone again at Christmas?” are two bits I make out. I shift back to the screen, having invaded her privacy enough and figuring I can get the same from my own notes.

***

San Francisco’s largely the same. I can’t decide whether this is good or bad. There are ghosts here for me now, and visual cues trigger memories of a life left behind just recently. Some of it seems retrievable while other fragments are gone forever and have a sadly distant quality. The Golden Gate Bridge is wet with rain as white cloud armies push over the city’s hills. I take this in not from my car, which is now the property of a U.C. Irvine freshman, but from a seat in the back of a Golden Gate Transit bus. My old flat in the city is gone too, and I’m staying with the parents, privy to my dad’s sleepless pacing on a turbulent winter night. Even the earth moved in anticipation of my return, with a 6.5 quake in Paso Robles.

I’m not quite sure where I am. San Francisco, New York.. It all seems both intimate and removed. Last year’s Central Park Christmas blends with the familiar clunking of my mom’s tumble-dry, and the birds peck away at seeds she’s left in the backyard. I check my email and a friend has written, complaining that it’s already Tuesday and my weekly column isn’t out. I must remember to thank him.

2003 Rick Monaco All Rights

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