Man’s search for meaning continues.
Last week, I went out in search of Christmas cheer, and not the kind that can be bought. I covered the parks, the , the tennis courts of America to find the warmth and camaraderie we have come to associate with this holiest of high holidays.
An errant knight on yet another quixotic quest? Hardly. I knew I would come back the better for it. But where to start?
I went to the teachers, the leaders of tomorrow’s followers. One of them told me he was looking forward to the Christmas break.
“And may Santa leave a bucket of reindeer dung for each bastard on the school board,” he chimed brightly; then he got into his Toyota Tercel and wheelied out of the school parking lot.
Next, I stopped at an all-night diner off the turnpike. The blue plate special was “there is no blue plate special, we only serve coffee and Danish after 1 a.m.,” a waitress snarled through a pair of red waxy lips where a cigarette burned on the side. “You want conversation, buy a phone.”
I walked back outside into the dark vacant parking lot and studied the sky. Nothing but cold stardust and moonlight.
I asked a wise man from the Pacific Northwest, a friend of mine, “What does Christmas cheer mean to you?” He paused for a moment, scratched his grizzled chin and smiled.
“Remember when you were a kid, and Christmas was magical and mysterious?” he said through his pine-scented breath. “Witnessing that in a child is to me the ultimate Christmas cheer. Everything else is bourbon and ham.”
I liked it. I was holding on to that one. Thanks, Robert. But my search wasn’t over. I pressed on.
I arrived at a public square and sat at the hems of the people’s truth tellers, CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, et al. They hurled forth their vitriolic vehemence, enraptured by the sound of their own voices; yet their words rang hollow, there was no weight to carry. Everything was being said for you.
As they started shouting over each other the ground split and out of its dark malignant maw grew a virtual leaning Tower of Babel - it leans to the left, it leans to the right, but never does it stand straight and truthful. I later heard they added a billiard room.
On to Washington, D.C., Blitzen! What cheerful truths might I conjure on the road to the White House? Whoa, steed! I know many times it’s been said this road is paved with good intentions, but I never believed it. Do you smell gas, old boy? What’s that up ahead, some kind of blinking red neon? Oh, wait, those are flames. Hi ho Blitzen! Away!
We stopped at a 7-11 for supplies: water, aspirin, gum, and a cherry ice for Blitzen. Our next destination was sure to run us in the ground.
We were going to Wall Street. Yes, that Wall Street. I have to say it looked pretty good, the buildings being especially impressive, all that architecture from the Gilded Age (remember?) Though, at first, the street itself was a little crowded.
I approached a noisy crowd of people holding picket signs aimed at the people working inside the buildings, but the police kept arresting them before they could give me an answer to my query. Unless “Eat the rich!” and “Death to the 1 percent!” is their idea of Christmas cheer.
In the air I detected a scent of patchouli oil mixed with tinctures of pepper spray and calla lily. It would make a great stocking stuffer: “Passion” by The People. “Dare to smell like the 99 percent.”
Inside, the scentless one-percenters behaved normally, as though nothing had happened. Nothing ever happened to them inside. Or outside. How many hundreds of these so-called occupiers have landed in jail, yet the prisons remain scotch-free of a single bank CEO or hedge fund manager whose gluttonous grab for gain ill-gotten would even make the Grinch blanch and hang his head?
But one side has to win. Might versus Right. Might took a standing eight count but made it to the next round. Now it looks as though Right is pulling a Sonny Liston and refusing to come out of its corner. Might wins again. When’s the next rematch?
O Holy Might! Where did I go wrong in my search for Christmas cheer? Wha’ happen?
And then I remembered a man named Duke. I met him the week before Thanksgiving in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. Duke is a shoe shiner. He makes his money by going around the city offering his expertise. He says he’s been shining shoes all of his life. He claims one of his first, and most loyal customers, was Elizabeth Dole. When Mrs. Dole was a managing partner at Coopers & Lybrand, Duke used to shine her boots “every other day.”
“She was a stickler for appearance,” he said.
I can’t say for sure if Duke is homeless, I didn’t ask him. Yet, I had the distinct impression that he wasn’t shining shoes on a cold night in the park because he had nothing better to do.
When I told him I didn’t have any money, I was lying. I had four dollars in my pocket. My friend said she didn’t have any cash on her, only credit cards. She wasn’t lying.
Still, Duke offered his services for free. We implored him to find more prospective customers, ones that could pay him, but he simply wouldn’t take no for an answer. So he sat on top of a black wooden box and pulled out his kit.
As he shined my friend’s shoes, Duke told us about his mother and father, and a story long ago on a snowy night.
“The snow plow never came through and my father needed to go to dialysis. So, at 3:10 in the morning, my mother started shoveling snow. While she did this, my father came by and stood by her side. My mother goes, ‘Honey what are you doing out here? You’re not supposed to be here?’ And my father goes, ‘You’re damn right, and you’re not supposed to be shoveling snow either.’ And they both knew each other was right, but they stood side by side until the job was done. So many people talk about love or say they’re in love. You know what, to hell with that conversation. Show it. As simple as that, show it.”
Duke got my four dollars. I told him I wished I had more. He understood. The rest, they say, is bourbon and ham.
So Merry Christmas to all, 99 plus 1, and to all a goodnight.