Crèche and Burn
From the December 22, 2003 issue: David Skinner, death of the party.
Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By DAVID SKINNER
IN ONE CHRISTMAS MEMORY of mine all the kids and parents are finishing dessert. I light a cigarette. A particularly outspoken relative, who's been bossing the conversation all night, says he's read that cigarette smoke can damage children's hearing. I reply, "No more than the voices of opinionated old men."
For the next four years, the blowhard refuses to attend any family function where I might make an appearance.
They don't make TV specials with scenes like the ones that fill my Christmas memories (or, to be fair, with characters like me).
How about this tableau? In the cozy, prosperous town of Douglaston, Queens, where I grew up, at the local bar one December night, I exchange greetings with an ex-con I used to play handball with, a drug dealer I knew at Catholic school, and a kid I've known for years who's now a cop. The three of them are hanging out together.
Later that night, I listen to this other guy I went to school with--not a dealer, an addict--rattle on about an idea he has for a screenplay. He's drunk, and taken with the notion that I am going to write the script for him. It's about some friends who win the lottery together but are torn apart--he says with much rueful head-shaking--by greed.
I have no experience writing screenplays, and tell him so several times, but he is undeterred, so I play along and try to hear more of the story.
"Who are these guys and how does their friendship break down?"
"You don't get it. They can't stay friends. Because of the money."
"Yeah, but do they disagree over how the money's divided? Does one of them try to steal money from the others?"
"I dunno," he says, irritated.
"Well, how do they go from being friends to not being friends?"
"The money, dude."
"But how does the story play out?"
"They're not playing. It's, like, real. That's what so messed up. You know, it's got to be like"--he puts his hand over his heart--"real."
I must seem disrespectful of my old classmate's storytelling skills, because minutes later he stands up and says (if I may paraphrase) that I am seriously lacking in Christmas spirit. A pretty frightening moment, because in my mind's eye, this guy has not grown at all since sixth grade, while my actual eyes tell me he's at least a foot taller. I escape a season's beating when our cop friend tells him to stop being a dumb drunk.
He sits down, takes a breath, and again tries to sell me on writing this great screenplay for him.
MEMORIES LIKE THESE may not be the stuff of a Hallmark Holiday Special, but there happens to be a Christmas song that captures their magic. I heard it for the first time last year, driving on the Long Island Expressway with my wife, the two of us having just lost so many hours to traffic that we were dangerously low on yuletide cheer.
"Merry Christmas," the singer cried in an injured sort of bellow, "I don't want to fight tonight."
The song is by Joey Ramone (the late, great leader of the punk band the Ramones), and it's my new favorite Christmas song, which I am grateful to have found.
Everyone should have a favorite Christmas song. Mine used to be "Christmas in Hollis" by Run DMC, even though, unlike the mom in the song, mine never cooks collard greens. And my hometown is nothing like Hollis, Queens. Very few people are robbed or killed in Douglaston (despite the criminal element at the local dive).
My friend Nick's favorite is Diana Krall's whispery "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (available only on import, sadly), which is like a late-night cognac by the fire, the room filling with thoughts, regrets, and memories of people who are no longer part of your life. Elegant but heartbroken; cool and perfect. A lot like Nick.
I also have loads of happy Christmas memories with appropriate musical accompaniment. The confetti showers of wrapping paper as I and my five siblings tore our way through Santa's gifts, Bing Crosby on the turntable. Those holy moments of standing at midnight mass, the delicate thrums of "Little Drummer Boy" in the air. That enchanting "A Charlie Brown Christmas," with its lonely piano, as I and my two brothers watch from the couch in the old family house.
But I confess to a sinking nervousness at the promise of so much joy, a slight fear that the festivities will turn out, like so many past Christmas moments, badly; that the expectation of joy and fellowship will be followed, hard, by disappointment. But then I put Joey Ramone on the CD player and try to remember what's most important: the fact that I don't want to fight tonight.