Almost all of the shops in Berlin are closed, today, because of a Bronze Age Creation Myth, believe it or not, and on most every Sunday of the year, in fact, the majority of the shops are closed owing to the oddly specific strictures of the same myth. Imagine calling your Telecom provider to request they send an associate to take a look at your Optical Termination Outlet (which is emitting sparks) and a robot customer service voice telling you “Thank you for your call, at present no Service Associates are available until after the Feast of Bacchus…” Which would be hilarious, yes, as well as perfectly analogous to closing the shops on Sundays because, when creating the Universe, supposedly, Sunday was the day on which the Bearded, Vaguely-Levantine, Anus-Free Sky Giant “rested”. The Universe has a Sunday?
I had to get on the U-Bahn to go to the supermarket adjacent to the Zoo Station to buy the olive oil I foolishly neglected to buy, at our nearby shops, yesterday morning, when the shops were still open, before the Bronze Age Creation Myth Holy Day kicked in that afternoon. Timing is everything. The Holy either embodies the hour gradually or snaps on and off like a spectral illumination, but, in any case, when it kicks in, the buying and selling of shit must cease. I can’t believe the Capitalists allow that. Unless it’s a sneaky trick to make you buy twice as much, in a grateful frenzy, when the prohibition lifts? Genius. I don’t mind being stopped from going about my business by the backward beliefs of those who conceive and enforce The Law (actually, I do), but wouldn’t it be nice to feel that these inconvenient dramas made sense?
Imagine living on a planet in which physical reality reflected visionary scripture and therefore on the appointed hour, every year, there was a rain of hot blood, say, or plagues of uncanny snakes, or eerie unbearable choirs booming the terrified sky? Hard to believe in a Bearded, Vaguely-Levantine, Anus-Free Sky Giant whose sacred anniversaries require i-phone notifications to keep track of. I want a Holy Day called (eg) “The Rain of Hot Blood Day” and I want it to do what it says on the tin. What does “Christmas” do? It makes middle class people eat Jello and geese.
Waiting at the U-Bahn station for the train to the Zoo, I walked (holding my breath) by two old convivial clochards who sort of live there because German cops, self-conscious about the rough stuff their uncomplicated grandfathers got up to in Fatherlandville, back when swing music was hot, don’t want to look too shiny in the boots, if you know what I mean, although, of course, it’s possible that I’m misinterpreting this general apparent German clemency toward the clochard and it’s really a kind of unspoken Aryan privilege. Maybe if the two chatty bums were “of color,” there’d be less uniformed patience for them. I was going to add, “But it’s a moot point since I’ve never seen two or more chatty bums of color colonizing the U-Bahn stations… “ until the obvious occurred to me and I put a hand over my mouth and my eyes got wide, a little.
Well, forget worrying about that one for now.
A ten-minute train ride and a brisk diagonal into the heart of the supermarket and I had my olive oil. Trips to this special, open-on-Sundays supermarket usually land me there when the check-out queues run fifty-souls deep. Today, all I had to do was grimace through two Xmas songs dripping from the ceiling’s sound system (I’ve never looked up, when shopping there, because I fear seeing Romanesque catacombs, or giant spiders), neither of which was traditional, one “rock” and one “soul” (though both could have been sung by Michael Bolton*) before I could leave the store. The songs were only recognizable as Festive when each respective chorus hit and the deracinated word “Chrizzzmuzz” dropped: a word I’ve always marveled at the ability of pop or rock singers to handle with a straight face and without twisting the vowels into sonic scare-quotes. I once decided to record a version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” for the outgoing message on my answering machine, because it was the 1980s and I was young, and I could not sing it without adopting a satirically goofy voice. As an experiment, the other day, I decided to try it again. Not for tape but simply out loud, with no one else present, and I managed to pull it off but only by pretending to be Johnny Mathis in a glittering dinner jacket.
Is that the secret of Xmas and all the millions (or hundreds) of otherwise intelligent people who go through with this annual concession to idiotic Belief while also firmly wedded to notions of Science and Logic which clearly refute the assertions of the bizarre narrative without which Xmas has no “meaning”? Are we all, metaphorically, pretending to be “Johnny Mathis” in order to “sing”?
A few years ago an older neighbor (a retired geologist from the DDR) wished me a “Merry Christmas,” in German, and I wished her one back, with the caveat, in German, that I wasn’t a “believer,” to which she responded, in German, “One doesn’t have to believe, it’s the spirit of the season that counts,” to which I responded, in English (chuckling): “Oh, you mean Capitalism?” I mean: come on, Man. She was from the DDfuckingR. She was there, Man. Why didn’t she get my joke?
Two of my most memorable Xmasses:
1. XMAS 1969
I was 10. I got an HO-scale-model train, a pocket-sized reference book about semi-precious stones and a deluxe Skilcraft chemistry set. The chemistry set, with its thick-wick’d alcohol lamp, put me in rapturous touch with my secret inner arsonist. It was sheer luck that I contained within my childish self no impish psychopath ready to turn my epiphany of pre-adolescent fire-love into a bigger deal than it was. I simply graduated, that Xmas, from a childish commitment to melting plastic soldiers on the blinding bulb in the brocade-trimmed lampshade on my mother’s nightstand… to melting and shaping Pyrex pipettes, largely, though the most dangerous thing I ever did with my new obsession, that subsequent summer, really was dangerous. I set a rubber-band-propelled airplane alight and let it fly, trailing thick black smoke, in the direction of the tall dry brush around the porch of my grandmother’s wood-frame, 102-year-old house, a house in a parched Negro suburb with no hydrants and limited fire-truck service… and nothing happened.
The song saturating the airwaves on the Xmas day I opened the box of my Skilcraft chemistry set in ’69 was Sly and the Family Stone’s Everyday People, a compositional marvel of two major chords anchoring two minutes and thirty seconds of one ethereal melodic invention after another. How could two major chords (the corniest possible major chords! The backbone of country music!) sound so Black? With this sweet alchemy, Sylvester Stewart got himself a hit and soundtracked my Xmas. That song sounded like the bright and matter-of-fact Future (my future) on our woodgrain table radio and I see myself standing in a characteristic chicken-wing stance, before the carefully-chosen seven-dollar king-sized car freshener that my father had thumb-screwed into a canting tripod, the listing tree draped in chains of very hot and big red and blue and green lights as if we wanted to electrocute it, my mother teetering on the stool she traditionally cut my hair, or almost killed spiders, on, to crown the tree with the cloaca of a racist Xmas angel as Everyday People played for the Nth time that day, the train just running and running, giving off ozone, whether we were in the room or not.
It was at that age that I’d walk to the record shop near my grandmother’s house and buy 45-rpm singles by The Beatles (I even bought a single by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, from a Black Neighborhood Record shop but before you spit out your tea at how jawdroppingly wrong it was for me, a young Black, to buy a Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass record at a Black Record Shop, please note that the motherfuckers had the record in stock), which took a certain amount of courage, but I heard the catchiest Sly as the same thing, more or less, as the catchiest Beatles and my sense of the difference between Black and White, in those days, had something to do with how openly, or not, a person might discuss the mysterious topic of Sex (what we called Nature). Decorous White people would beat around the bush on The Dating Game or on late night talk shows… versus… [I’m reminded of the time that a girl named either Kimberly or Verlene raised her hand in Sex Ed, when I was twelve, and asked the teacher what to do if the man “always come too quick”]. The irony being that although Blacks of my acquaintance, when I finally hit the right age for it, were more blunt and forthright in talking about the stuff, the Whites of my acquaintance were a lot less precious about actually doing it.
The Xmas of 1969, I was in love with Clarice-the-Reindeer, who famously sang, to lucky Rudolph, There’s Always Tomorrow (for Dreams to Come True), in a voice that pinged my latent sexuality at the same level of intensity that Skilcraft chemistry set had pinged my dormant inner-firebug. Clarice was big-eyed, supportive, demure and brown, with a suburban singing voice, and I swooned for her. My affinity for this Reindeer-girl was miraculous. Fuck (I mean don’t) Jessica Rabbit. For me it was always Clarice.
The model train, book and chemistry set gifts of ’69’s Xmas were even more miraculous than the budding Reindeer sexuality I felt at 10, in that we were beneath dirt-poor, lived in a notorious Ghetto and were palpably poorer than most of our ghetto neighbors, who were either on some kind of Federal Assistance (my mother refused it and I thanked her, even as a kid, for that) or running wah-wah-soundtracked side-hustles, like the one anachronistically fat neighbor, three doors down, who retailed brand name candy from her kitchen window and drove a gold Cadillac. My Xmas gifts that year must have cost three times what we paid in rent every month and a fraction of what our futuristically-fat neighbor grossed in a week. I’ll bet my mother bought fewer dresses, fewer stockings, no new shoes and rather less food (for herself) that year and of course I did not notice.
(It’s only in writing this that the penny finally dropped and I realized that the mega-jiggle-assed candy-dealer in lime-green pantsuits probably lived somewhere else entirely, somewhere nice, somewhere safe and clean and she commuted in her gold Eldorado, with the puffy top and TV antenna… I am not making her car up, I saw it, I see it now, parked at the curb up the street in non sequiturial splendor… commuted to that dirt-cheap apartment in the ghetto to serve a clientele who, while not being able to afford much of anything else, bought candy, therefore, almost all of the time. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now-and-Laters, Peter Paul Almond Joys, Boston Baked Beans, Red Hots, Bazooka Joes, Clark Bars, Milk Duds, Mary Janes, Wax Lips, Tropical Life Savers, 5th Avenues, Charleston Chews, Pez, Mars Bars, Milky Ways, Smarties, Jawbreakers, Ten Thousand Dollar Bars and Peppermint Patties… for weddings and funerals and the christening of ships.)
That Xmas was one of the really rare happy moments of that dark period of my brutal incarceration in a shitty, hopeless, infernal place. My life, that Xmas, was brightened by deep snow and Everyday People and the crypto-(proto)-erotic Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer ritual for Xmas Eve TV-tray dinner and weeks of that mesmerizingly fragile train going round and round in a gentle simulation of my mother’s circumstances.
2. XMAS 1970
A Xmas visit to Philly. My maternal great Aunt and her husband ran a funeral home in a then-integrated (now fully disintegrated) , petite-bourgeois neighborhood called Germantown. They were super-wealthy by my standards (upper middle class by national norms), owned half the block and had a long garage of black cars. They owned three three-story schist-stone row-homes full of antique furniture and white shag carpets and a big white illuminated sign on the front lawn that could only have been better if it said “Ten thousand served” on the bottom.
Included in the compound was a chapel and a morgue and, at any given moment, three or four visiting corpses, with whom, during that visit, I had no truck**. The third-floor guestroom I slept in was a shag-carpeted duvet palace compared to the Ghetto apartment (concrete walls and black linoleum floors) I would call home for another four years, four years of thinking I would die there, in the Ghetto and I watched the Philadelphia snow fall between pretty bourgeois curtains to frost the black shingles of the 19th-century roofs, in a row across the street, and it was as Dickensian as a Southside of Chicago boy, of eleven, would ever have it for I was sub-Dickens. I was below the chimney sweeps. I was David Copperface.
My Great Aunt’s husband drove us, the poor visiting country mice, around Philly in his Lincoln Continental and pointed out things of historical interest in his semi-literate voice, the voice of a successful businessman, a literally think-fingered vulgarian, chomping on a cigar and pointing at the Quaker Friends School or the statue of William Penn and I wanted to say You antediluvian Nigger, will you puh-lease hush the fuck up and let me enjoy the pointillist tableaux of this finely-wrought snowfall from the comfort of this Caligulan car you’ve acquired by milking the superstitions of the poor folk you seduce into hiring you to bury a 30-dollar corpse in a 4,000-dollar container? Or an 11-year-old’s stream-of-consciousness inner-dialogue to that effect.
Christmas Eve or thereabouts my great Aunt threw a middle class dinner party and made fancy stuffed chicken breasts the flavor of which I have never managed to simulate nor encounter nor even describe in forty-nine years, and I feasted timorously on these delicacies while the old people dined in the chandelier-lit dining room downstairs, chuckling and tutting over the kind of vacuous bullshit I had (and have) no interest in. I happily watched, instead, a special episode of the Dick Cavett Show in which brainy kids my age, more or less, were invited to discuss the issues of the day. Wondrous. I cheered. I cannot recall the physical Xmas gifts I got that year, in Philly or in Chicago but my great Aunt Georgia’s chicken breasts would be my Madeleine today if only I could get my aging tongue on one of those again…
Near the end of that trip I met my great Aunt’s neighbor and occasional helper, a girl in her latter teens, a senior in High School, Maxine K., a tomboy whose brown breasts I had to fantasize without nipples, since I’d never seen brown breasts with nipples… Maxine K. and her maddening inability to take me seriously as a man. I had a trench coat! I wore aftershave (Hai Karate or Aqua Velva)! To no avail. I was a kid to Maxine and she was my oblivious Dream Girl despite the fact that I wouldn’t even masturbate, for the first time, until nearly two years after meeting her, during the long hot summer of 1972… while watching an episode of The Flying Nun… forgetting entirely to conscript Maxine’s nipple-free phantom for that purpose. Although I hasten to add that I wasn’t fantasizing about The Flying Nun***, either…
So many memories of purely irrational Xmas and not once does some Bearded, Vaguely-Levantine, Anus-Free Sky Giant figure into it. But who am I to tell you what metaphysical chassis, for the draping of the fabric of your Life’s plot points, to eschew?
If you must drive drunk, do it on your riding snow-blower.
*Google the bastard.
**Archaic turn of phrase. Three years later I moved there to attend an All Boy College Prep and I saw more of the naked dead than I saw of most of my classmates.
*** I still don’t know what, during that particular episode, of that particular show, made me strip, suddenly, as though a whistle had been blown and hump the cushions of my mother’s sofa while she was out shopping? What I remember thinking, as I wiped up, was how my mother, if she’d seen me, would say, proudly, “You’re a man now!” and how irritatingly patronizing it would feel.