Wednesday, December 22, 2010

This Simple Phrase

So, I get on the E Train at 23rd Street to go meet my friend Valerie for lunch at the Oyster Bar. (The Oyster Bar has already been covered, so I’ll skip that part of the story.) As cold as it was I decided to take the train to the 5th Avenue stop, get out at 53rd Street and walk back down to Grand Central.

As much as anyone, the excesses of the Christmas season make my skin crawl: hordes of Walmartians stampeding into stores before dawn on Black Friday; Christmas decorations going up in November; the annual—and totally fabricated—debate about saying “holiday” vs. “Christmas.” Being the dyed-in-the-wool atheist that I am the very underpinnings of the holiday ring false with me. Which is kind of ironic in that I see very, very little Christ in most of the Christmas activities that assault the general population from year to year.

When the train reached the 42nd Street stop a self-appointed Apostle of the Lord boarded the train and began quoting scripture. Loudly. Very loudly. My eardrums were literally ringing with the barrage of sing-songy Bible verses this fellow was haranguing we heathens with. Apparently we were all going to Hell, which, compared with this, would have been a vacation. My fellow passengers rolled their eyes and covered their ears but no one said anything. After all, there’s a fine line between devout and demented. But if I had summoned the nerve to address the guy I would have asked him if he could put what he was saying into his own words. A lot of this scripture-spouting has always struck me as merely showing off what one has memorized without really absorbing its meaning.

I escaped the sermon at the 5th Avenue stop and ascended to the street. Indeed, baby, it was cold outside. I joined the hordes on the street. As I walked past the Abercrombie and Fitch store I saw the long line of people waiting to go in.

Let’s pause to consider that: Waiting. To go in. To a clothing store.

As I passed, the doors opened and inside stood a mostly-naked, muscular young man who seemed to be… well, I’m not sure just what he was doing. Putting people in the Christmas mood? He seemed to be putting people in some kind of mood.

I popped in to St. Patrick’s cathedral out of habit. I’ve been going in there for years whenever I pass. The smell of candle wax calms me. The guard instructed men to remove their hats while inside. If I had been in a synagogue I would have been instructed to don a hat. How can the Middle East be expected to reach a peace accord when the world can’t even agree on whether or not to wear headgear in a house of worship?

Next stop: Sak’s windows. Sak’s Christmas windows vary wildly in originality and quality from year to year. (The best ever? The recreation of Christmas numbers form Broadway musicals.) This year they’re dull to the point of being almost impossible to describe. I truly don’t know what was supposed to be going on in them. They feature standard mannequins in expensive gowns and jewels and there are some kind of little girl characters stuck in here and there. I was at a loss. No wonder there were no lines to view that.

The Rockefeller Center skating rink? Packed and expensive. Kids crying. Parents crouched down and angry. The tree? The same as always. (Although the star does have a corporate sponsor this year.)

Nope. Nothing was challenging my innate Scrooginess on this trip down the center of Manhattan.

I got to glorious Grand Central Terminal and had a wonderful lunch with the aforementioned Valerie. I don’t think either of us mentioned Christmas once. I said goodbye to her and headed for the subway. Down. Down and down. As I walked the block-long passageway to reach the 8th Avenue line I passed a pair of buskers tucked into an unobtrusive corner of a stairwell. I generally disdain street musicians. I’m not exactly sure why that is, but I usually walk past with a lowered gaze, always a little embarrassed.

These guys were different, though. They really seemed to be playing just for themselves. Acoustic guitar and fiddle. No amplification. The guitarist simply strummed the beat--chunk-chunk-chunk on the chords—while the violinist played a somewhat loping version of the tune. The tune. “The Christmas Song.” Mel Tormé. Chestnuts. Nat King Cole.

The rendition was so modest, the scene so incongruous that I was able to really hear the song. I know the song pretty well because I like it and because I often find myself at the piano during Christmas season and it’s a song people usually want to hear. It’s a tough one. It sounds so simple and yet the melody and chord changes are alarmingly complex. Every year I find myself learning the song anew (I play these things by ear) as the changes are just too weird to keep in one’s head.

As I passed the subway duo they were rounding the tune into “yuletide carols being sung by a choir/and folks dressed up like Eskimos.” That musical line sounds like it’s riding on a cloud, pillowing from one note to the next effortlessly and dreamily. Hah! If only! Folks, I’ll have you know that passage goes through about four different keys in as many bars and can drive a by-ear musician nuts.

But there in the subway, in a urine-soaked stairwell, played by two guys who didn’t seem to give a hoot whether the indifferent crowds were even listening, the melody rode on a cloud and pillowed from one note to the next, effortlessly and dreamily.

And that was a Christmas miracle.


  1. as usual... beautiful, thoughtful... inspired. Thanks TJ!

  2. So glad to have you in my life, Tom

  3. "Christmas Song" is a genius song.