Monday, December 24, 2001

Christmas in Manhattan

I've always felt, other than ... hmm ... the North Pole, that Manhattan has got to be the Christmas capital of the world. It's not that we city folks are any more merry than the rest of the world (although we are better dressed, I must say). It's just that there's something about Christmas in New York. There always has been.

Ice skating at Rockefeller Center (not that I've ever actually done that). ...

The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall (never actually seen the Rockettes ...).

Holiday shopping up and down 5th Avenue ...(who can afford 5th Avenue?) ...

Hey! Just knowing these things are there has filled me with downright giddiness, and I'm Jewish for crying out loud!

Manhattan on Christmas is simply wonderful.

I love the way die-hard New Yorkers get soft-hearted in the days before December 25th. Yes, they do still tell you to go to hell if you're in their way during rush hour, but they smile as they say it. Some may even add, "and ... umm ... Merry Christmas!"

I love the sight of iron window guards laced with pine and twinkling lights, and ooohhh the sounds of Christmas carolers and car alarms.

Christmas in Manhattan has always been magical.

But what about this year?

How much magic will it take to conjure up this soft wonderful spirit against the backdrop of all that we've lost this year?

How can we muster up a decent waft of joy when the thought of all those families mourning their loved ones keeps drifting in and out of our hearts?

They say it won't even snow this Christmas.

We need some $%#@ snow!

I've ventured out to try to find this thing called joy this season, and what I've found instead are other things: resolve, kindness, pride and heroism.

There was Carol, who with a band of determined Christmas carolers attempted to serenade the workers at ground zero. They weren't allowed in, so with bagpipe player in tow, they sang so loud that even against the wind and the tractors and the avenue of distance their songs were heard ... or so they hoped.

There are the many, many people in my neighborhood and in all the others who have dressed their doors and their windows and their trees with more lights and tinsel and tiny angels than ever before. Amid the abundance of twinkling, blinking lights is a new Christmas ornament; the American flag.

Red, white and blue has joined red, green and gold as part of the rainbow of Christmas.

I tried to volunteer at ground zero feeding the rescue crews, thinking that most people would not want to give up their Christmas to dole out mashed potatoes, but I was wrong. There are so many volunteers this Christmas that the coordinator did not even want to take my phone call. "Call back in January," she said, "We're slammed."

She wasn't very polite, but I got her message; everyone wants to help.

Is it sad this year?

Endlessly sad.

With there be joy?

We'll try.

Do we have the Christmas spirit?

You bet your ass we do!

Wednesday, December 19, 2001

If you want to know what real New Yorkers are really thinking about the war, put a tape recorder in a commercial kitchen.

I share my catering kitchen with a company that supplies food to a college commissary. Between our two crews, we've got a mishagash stew: one Ecuadoran, two New York Jews (best kind), one all-American rocker (cross Kurt Cobain with John Tesh), one Colombian, one Filipino raised in NYC and an African-American from the projects.

A typical afternoon banter might start something like this:

"So, Sergio, what are your feelings about the war today?"

"Oh, you know. ... I think it sucks!"

We never used to discuss politics in the kitchen, but things have changed.

After September 11th, the rocker plugged an old television set into an extension cord shared with the meat slicer. It only got two channels. One of them ran 24 hours of news, so the kitchen stayed in touch with the outside world, even if the slicer ran a bit slow.

Our kitchen, by the way, is the last warehouse in a row of warehouses, with thick concrete walls and 20-foot ceilings. We're in Long Island City, only a minute from the Mid-town Tunnel or the 59th Street bridge, but it feels like we're nestled on the Isle of Nowhere.

FYI, Long Island City is part of Queens, not Long Island. You'd be surprised how many diehard Manhattanites don't know that.

It's pretty easy to feel disconnected from the world out there, especially if you enter 3,000 feet of concrete and stainless steel before the sun rises and leave after it sets, as the rocker's crew does.

As for moi, well the entire reason I started my business is that I'm incapable of facing the world before 11 a.m. So I send in my chef at 10 and saunter in jovial and bubbly (NOT) at about 11:30.

When the towers were hit, the rocker and his prep cook walked down to the end of the block, where Manhattan suddenly unfolds like a giant postcard, and watched. They stared dumbfounded as a second plane hit the towers. With eyes wet and jaws hung open, they watched the first tower implode, then they trudged back to the kitchen lost and speechless.

How do you make egg salad for 200 after that?

"That's when I plugged in the TV, duuuuude," said the rocker, trying to shove his long, blond hair under his headband, "I wanted to know what was coming next!"

Before 9/11, the most our kitchen ever talked about current events was during the recent presidential election. We kept track of the counting and re-counting of the votes, on our radio and cheered when Gore was ahead. When Bush was ahead, we stirred our sauces and chopped our onions with a vengeance as if that could somehow just push him away, out of our world.

When Bush stole, errr, um, won the election, we began a chant that seemed to last for weeks. "Fuck Bush! Fuck Bush!"

But no one cares about that now. Some of the crew is glad to have him in office, because in the words of my chef (one of the New York Jews; I'm the other, natch), "We need a war monger right now. Gore is too decent of a guy."

To which I always add, "Bring back Clinton!"

Our motley crews have not always been in agreement, especially when the U.S. first started simultaneously dropping bombs on the Taliban and food for the Afghan people.

"We're dropping food?? Dude!! Just blow them all the fuck up!" screamed the rocker. A lively humanitarian speech ensued from the New York Jewish contingent.

When the anthrax reports started, we listened on the radio and seasoned our marinades and roasted our turkeys and thought out loud, "This shit is getting scary."

But mostly the comments bantered around are about how much the war has changed our lives. Business is down. Deliveries take an extra hour or two or three. Our vans are searched (and uncharacteristically, we don't mind). Strangers asking for directions are scrutinized as though they have a bomb taped under their Mets caps.

Every time we pass the armed guards as we enter the Midtown Tunnel, we are reminded instantaneously of the real-ness of this war. I always feel a pang of fear that first moment we plunge into the tube. I picture it all crashing down on me. When we emerge from the other side, I remember to breathe again.

In the first month after September 11th, I had a lot of trouble caring about whether my vinaigrette had just the right hint of honey. I did not ask the others, but I could tell that we all felt it. Nothing we were doing seemed that important anymore. How can you obsess about the right proportion of salt to sugar in coleslaw, when thousands of people died, right over there, in the empty space cut out of the post card?

The Filipino doesn't come in as often now. He spends a lot more time with his kids. He comes around to make a sauce or two and then runs off to pick up his children. He's a nice guy. His kids must adore him.

Members of the Latin contingent seem mostly lost in their own thoughts, going about the business of their inner lives. I know the Colombian sidelines for a company that fed the rescue crews, but he doesn't talk about it. He smiles a lot and reminds us what sucks and what doesn't. Mostly he thinks any war sucks but doesn't question the need for this one. None of us do.

The Ecuadoran doesn't speak English, but she laughs at our jokes. I have no idea how she feels about the war, but I think the television irritates her.

As for our brother from the projects. He mostly just does his job and leaves. Doesn't want any shit from us, doesn't want to dole it out neither. He always seems a bit bored with all the war stuff. "I just want to get home," was mostly all he said this fall. We've nicknamed him "Mr. Personality."

My chef ponders it all and questions everything. He questions the authenticity of the bin Laden tape.

"I don't know if it's fake or not, but it's great timing."

He rolls his eyes at the very mention of Arafat.

"Yeah, sure he wants peace. That's why he's been doing such a grrrrrrreat job getting it."

He laughs at the notion of capturing bin Laden.

"He's probably in his little private cave right now with a candle and a lot of books."

As for me, well, sometimes I like to lose myself in this concrete cavern, just push myself over to a back table and make my marinades and listen to jazz and try to pretend that I haven't seen and heard all the things I've seen and heard these last few months.

Yeah. Well, that lasts about 10 minutes, but it's a sweet 10 minutes, let me tell you.

If you want to know what real people really think about the war, just come over to our place. We've got it all covered. Mostly though, we're a little out of sorts like the rest of the country and a little sad. Even the rocker. He hasn't said "dude" all day. I'm worried about him.

Sunday, December 09, 2001

Maybe it was the 50th news telecast about the Christmas tree at ground zero, or the fact that all the help agencies down in the trenches seem to be Christian: The Salvation Army, St. Paul's Church, The Trinity Church.

Maybe I'm just projecting my own feelings about being left out on the Christmas holiday season, but I woke up on the morning of December 8th with one blazing thought in my mind: What about Chanukah at ground zero?

I'd spent Rosh Hashanah volunteering down there and was shocked at the slew of soldiers and volunteers who clustered around the Jewish chaplain as he put together a make-shift service amidst the dust.

Why was I surprised to see so many Jews in uniform?

I suppose it just didn't fit the stereotype.

Being a soldier, a fireman or even a construction worker, for that matter, wasn't the profile I'd been taught since early childhood, (Jews were supposed to be doctors, lawyers, accountants or television producers). If we can't do that, we're at least supposed to go into the wholesale apparel business.

I did the next best thing; I became a caterer.

If you can't beat them ... feed them.

Anyway, as I said, I woke up with a mission.

It was a cold Saturday. Our record warm spell was over, rain was impending and the first night of Chanukah was in one day.

I dressed and started my trek to the closest thing Manhattan has to the holy land: The Lower East Side.

Past Yonah Shimmel's Knishes and Katz's delicatessen, I turned on Essex street and found the old Jewish-style candy store that will always remind me of fresh halvah and chocolate-covered matzoh: Economy Candy. I waited in a long line of impatient tourists from Long Island and finally purchased my bounty.

I now had ammunition: dreidels filled with fruit chews and jelly beans, milk chocolate gelt (Chanukah coins) in gold wrappers and dozens of tiny treats including chocolate racing cars.

With my Jewish Santa's sack slung over my shoulder I trudged crosstown into Tribeca, determined to get my parcel into ground zero.

The last time I'd been down there was the week after the towers collapsed, It was different then. If you looked like you belonged and said the right things, you could get in. You could help feed people or dole out water or socks … something. If you wanted to get in bad enough, amid the confusion and the despair, you could.

Not now.

From Greenwich Street in Tribeca I could see the collapsed mass of wreckage. It was shocking to weave through restaurants and holiday shoppers and suddenly come upon this monument of death. I made my way through a hundred or so tourists pushing against the wooden barricade to take pictures of the pile.

They seemed excited … not happy, but jazzed up. Their cameras flashed furiously as they climbed up on police barricades and garbage cans to get a better view.

It made me a bit peevish.

I cut east and tried to walk around another block, but each time I found a street leading into ground zero it ended with hundreds of tourists with cameras and a police barricade that no one, not even the police, could get through.

Finally, on Broadway, I found myself back at St. Paul's church, the oasis of food, clothing and support, where I had volunteered in those days after the 11th. There were no more buffets set up outside, no socks or clothing or news crews. Instead possibly a thousand tourists pushed their way past the church taking photos. A tour bus drove by with its passengers pressed against the glass, snapping away.

It felt like madness.

I stared at the old brown church. The last time I'd been here, St. Paul's was covered in dust and burnt papers, now it was covered with a memorial made of drawings, t-shifts, teddy bears, letters, candles and police hats

I needed to get away from the cameras and forced my way to the front step. St. Paul's was closed to the general public, but the reverend recognized me and ushered me inside.

"Nice to see you again," he said.

"Hello, Lyndsey. Wow, it sure is different now."

"Yeah, but they're still coming in."

They were.

There in the warm cozy church, I saw volunteers doling out pharmaceutical supplies, chiropractors with their massage tables set up, priests ready to give counseling and two women doling out hot soup and cold cut sandwiches. It was a one-stop relief center for tired and beaten rescue crews.

Small groups of visitors sat on the pews and prayed silently as a young woman played the flute.

The moment struck me as oddly absurd: I was standing in a church filled with clergy, carting a sack full of Chanukah candy.

But I had a mission.

I left St. Paul's and tried to come around from the south side and then from the west, each time meeting a guard or cop who told me they never went into "the hole" and could not help me.

Finally, on a quiet, seemingly ignored street I saw a green wooden wall behind police barricades and two cops standing guard.

"It's Chanukah … and I need to bring these things to the guys in there that are Jewish," I said trying to look as small and demure as my black leather boots and jacket would allow. "I don't want them to feel left out."

I must have caught them on a sympathetic day. "Let her through."

I was allowed into what turned out to be the private observation deck overlooking the very center of the hole. This was the place I assumed was reserved for politicians and celebrities. A small group of official looking people made room for me. I felt a chill when I realized that I was also probably standing in the private deck used when family members of the deceased needed to visit the site.

I had been this close to the debris before, the week I volunteered, but never stood directly in the center of it all. It was so staggering, I almost forgot what I was doing there.

The ruins were massive; I began to feel insignificant. I felt small and lost and useless. Were it not for the aching in my shoulder bringing me back to reality, I wonder if I would still be standing there staring at the burnt steel.

As miracles would have it, a construction worker I asked to help me get my gifts to the crews turned out to be Jewish. Who woulda guessed? I would have bet the bank he was Italian, but then everyone says that about me, too.

He was going off shift, but he agreed to take my sack of goodies and distribute it to the tents where the crews took their breaks.

"They are going to have a menorah lighting tomorrow night," he said, as if to reassure me that I wasn't the only one who woke up thinking about Chanukah on ground zero.

"Thanks," I said, shaking his big hand. "I was worried that my guys wouldn't get anything for Chanukah this year." My guys?

As for my good Samaritan ways paying off (a little New Testament allusion never hurt anybody … ), well, minutes after I left, the rain started and it grew icy cold and windy. There were no cabs, and the one subway station I found was closed. So I wound up walking the 35 or so blocks to my home in the East Village.

I trudged through crowds of Christmas shoppers, honking traffic jams and icy rain muttering something to myself that at any time in my life before September 11th would have been "So this is the thanks I get," but in fact was "Man! I feel so amazing right now!"

I did ... feel amazing.

I do ... feel amazing.

I guess it seems silly talking about it now. Going on a ridiculous 100-block trek to and around downtown Manhattan trying to give Chanukah candies to some rescue workers.

But you've gotta do something, even if it's small, and that's what I love about New York right now, all the small things people are doing.

As I said, I always feel left out of the holiday season, but I've got a feeling that I'm not going to feel that way this year and maybe my guys (and girls) won't either.

Happy Chanukah to us all.

Wednesday, December 05, 2001

Let me just say it out loud.

I have always loved Christmas.

Phew!

Is that ever a relief!

Hey! The ceiling didn't come crashing down. No lightning. My mother didn't come back from that great sample sale in the sky screeching, "OYYYYYY VEYYYYYYY!!!!!"

It must be (gasp) okay for a Jew to love Christmas.

As a kid I always felt left out in December. All the other kids were writing their lists for mom and pop Santa, out caroling, decorating the tree. They seemed so damned giddy it made me sick.

I wondered aloud why, why, why didn't we have something to sing in public about, (unless, you count Gershwin show tunes of course).

Sure, Christmas was short compared to the eight days of Chanukah, but the thrill my schoolmates described in waking up on Christmas morning to piles of gifts and the smell of French toast just seemed infinitely better than candle lighting and Kugel.

Night after night, we circled the kitchen dinette set hoping for something grand. Night after night, my supremely eccentric mom doled out bottles of shampoo, tube socks, three-for-a-dollar underwear and other officially lousy gifts. Maybe on the fourth night, after we were practically suicidal, she'd bring out some decent gifts -- a Barbie doll, a Tonka truck -- but it was too little too late for moi. I ate so many potato pancakes on Chanukah week that I began to think the real meaning of this holiday was eight days of constipation.

Green was the color of Christmas, all right, and I was rolling in it: green, green envy. There were all those great Snoopy cartoons. Wow! Cartoons at night! What a treat for a kid, right? Think again. The second any of the Peanuts gang broke into a Christmas song, my mom flipped the channel.

"That's a Christian show!" she'd shriek, as if she'd caught us sitting on the couch devouring a pork roast. "Turn on Channel 13. Maybe there's a Chanukah special."

If there was a Chanukah special on, it consisted of a very dowdy man in a yarmulke, slowly explaining the meaning of the festival of lights in that same monotone voice my science teacher used when he wanted to send an entire class into a coma.

Couldn't somebody make Chanukah as fun as Christmas??!

Clearly there are Jewish families around the world who manage to have a whole lot more fun than my family did. I know for a fact that my brother's kids don't miss Christmas a bit, but then my brother's idea of Chanukah is a week in Disneyland.

How I love the Christmas spirit; weeks and weeks of excitement all building up to one night of champagne and then a morning chock full of goodies.

It's like a one-night stand with Santa!

But not for me (never liked big fat hairy men, anyway, or … hmm … any kind for that matter).

So here I am, ready once again to be bombarded with Christmas cards and Christmas gifts from my friends.

I'll try to keep with the Chanukah spirit and send my friends their gifts in time for the first night of Chanukah, but they'll only sit them under the *&^%# tree and open them on December 25th, anyway.

Yeahhhhh. I'll be lucky if I have a bar of scented soap to unwrap on Chanukah. Most of my gifts will come, you guessed it, just in time for Christmas.

But this year's gonna be different.

This year I'm gonna stir up some green of my own.

I feel my spirit is renewed. I will, yes, yes, yes, I will make Chanukah as fun as Christmas.

I will go to the Second Avenue Deli and buy latkes by the dozen (you don't think I'm gonna spend Chanukah peeling %$#@& potatoes do you?).

I will spin the dreidel.

I will dole out gefilte fish and guilt.

I will kvetch.

I will kvel!

I will play Klesmer music until my neighbors either call the cops or convert.

I AM YENTL; HEAR ME ROAR!!!!

Sigh.

Oh hell! I always hated eggnog, anyway. What do they put in that stuff?? It tastes like sugared down Hollandaise sauce. YEEEECH!