By Michelle Railey
December 16, 2017
That was you, you had your hair freshly cut, a full eight inches off (The hair dresser’s name was Helga. She wore white jeans. She had an accent. This was not the Fiesta nor the Great Clips of Home.) You stopped by your employer, a cut-rate ophthalmologist on Broadway. He didn’t recognize you at first. The power of a good hair-cut and your fanciest coat.
That’s okay, you thought. He paid under the table, a phrase you’d never even known existed until you moved to New York. The first day he’d met you, he said you looked “corn-fed” or “wholesome” or “corn” something. It had never really sat well with you, but what could you do? Well, you’d quit in three months or so, because, after all, he really was quite an ass and one of your co-workers was racist and, well, depression is a beast and even at 19, at 20, eventually it catches up and you realize selling dumb frames for untaxed money is vaguely dishonest and seriously interrupting your vocal rehearsal, stretching, laundry, and memorization time, and
Back to December. 1994. New York.
(A pause: the present being what it is, the author had to Internet search her old grocery store- The Fairway, her old buildings- The Broadway American in December but The Ansonia in January, and Fish’s Eddy– which no longer seems to have a location on the Upper West Side, which makes the author feel sad. It was an excellent place to visually feast when one was dawdling on the way to any detested classes.)
1994. New York. December, specifically Christmastime.
You ate a lot of pears that month. Quite a few bagels (from Fairway, mostly; from H&H occasionally, depending on pocket money; maybe two from Zabar’s, which store smelled the best of all of the three). There was a steel-drummer hanging out in front of Zabar’s; he played Caribbean versions of Christmas songs. And you, in the present, writing this now, you hope he’s still there.
You spent one crystal cold, clarified butter sun, icy cold morning dealing in Tower Records. Your stupid-ass assignment for Musical Theatre 1-0-whatever was 1776 and “He Plays the Violin.” So you needed the damn CD: you walked there, in velveteen heels (the 1990s had a neo-Victorian kick), and a couple floors up, bought the original cast recording.
Back to your room. Listen. (The roommate is witchy; she’s prone to sitting on the floor in front of candles that are blue, red, and orange, and chanting in languages you’ve never heard. But, luckily, she must be doing one of those “Just Drama Student” things and isn’t present…thank god.) Pause to listen to Harry Simeon Chorale, to Harry Connick Jr, to every Christmas mixtape you had ever made. A pause to think of your mom (always, especially, forever your mom), your dad, your little sister. Maybe another pause, but you can guess what our homesick dumb-ass self was doing just then.
Damn 1776. Rehearse (lip synching, mainly, in the tiny laundry room; your school had precious few rehearsal rooms — distinctly odd for a school that specialized in any kind of vocal, musical performance, but -as the kids say now- “whatevs”). The good thing about the laundry room was that it was tiny. It was warm. It was very, very private. You could sit on the dryer and rehearse (inaudibly— not helpful, if your thing is vocal performance) and/or scrawl capital-F FEELINGS in your journal, while doing your laundry, avoiding your roommate, and being alone. (This, the warmth and the privacy, is a commodity, highly prized, in December, in 1994, in New York.)
At any rate.
There was, at that time, a lone Hallmark sort of store: one street over from Broadway, probably the 70s, but I’m old and don’t remember. It had stickers by the roll and all the normal Hallmark card sorts of things, plus a distinct aura of “our days are numbered.” Maybe they knew printers and Internet so soon would take away their mojo, but the carpet had too few shelves resting on it; the cashiers numbered one; the entire theme was “going out of business.” Nevertheless, the times and me, being what we were, I bought one roll of wrapping paper and a couple stickers. If I hummed “He Plays the Violin” in my head, dreamt about home, and/or got so homesick for my mother, for proper over-warm Midwestern mall stores with their wholesomeness and their kitsch and their schtick and their mistakes, well, it didn’t matter that much. A decent bagel and cup of coffee was a block away. If I walked fifteen minutes, I could both smell Zabar’s and hear the steel drummer…and I was pretty damn content/reliant on the part where I knew I’d be going home in a couple days (after the 1776 thing; after the last shift or two at the shady optometrist’s). So, weird 1990s Hallmark, whatever with your ghostly out-of-business-ness. But thanks for the wrapping paper (pink, with Christmas tree illustrations; Indiana had never seen anything like it. Not then, anyway.)
(An interlude to ask oneself: why record memories, perceptions, especially from the ’90s, which doesn’t count for anything. It was so long ago and other decades mattered more and…)
You went to Macy’s, at Christmastime. The real Macy’s, the one in Times Square: you did not see Santa (disappointing), you did visit The Cellar (kind of homey), you bought a stupid needlepoint pillow with angels for your grandma (Spoiler: she never used it but did, at least, that one Christmas, pretend like she thought it was nice. It was, actually, nice. And very grandmother-y).
You went, that December, into fancy boutiques. You walked past the occasional gated courtyard, pristine and severe and so very gray. You studied in Barnes and Noble and the New York Public Library; you cursed the Xerox copying fees. You thanked God and Santa and everything holy and less-than-holy for the privacy of the laundry room.
You went to Nick’s (a Greek cafe) and you ordered falafel, received free baklava (one per order!), watched the elderly waiter; you ate grapefruit and pears from Fairway, bagels from H&H. You dutifully practiced a rancid combination of vocal performances: a saccharine thing from “Cheaper by the Dozen,” that goddamned “He Plays the Violin,” and an assortment of Purcell for Voice Potato, who had, apparently, never explored the depths of any other bel canto or art songs or, well, anything other than Henry Freaking Purcell.
It finally reached the 23rd of December: you had smelled smoking and roasting chestnuts and almonds on every New York street. You had viewed the decorations on Fifth. You had seen all the Duane Reade or drugstore parfumerie chains drape themselves inside out and sideways with red and white and feathers. You had had, quite frankly, enough.
You longed, at that time, for a perfectly decent (in fact, innocent) cup of coffee: no flavors, no paper cup, no sweetener, no anything. Just Joe. In a mug.
You longed, at that time, for the sublime over-abundant-schlockiness of a mid-western mall: the Santa, the excess, the chain stores, the fundamental ordinariness.
You longed, at that time, for the creche placed on the piano at home. The white-lit tree in the living room, the multi-lit and remembrance-garlanded tree in the basement. The ornaments from your first Sunday School, the badly-glued star from some church thing or another, the neighborhood back home you could count on to be extravagantly lit. The mint-chocolate-chip ice cream you knew would be in the freezer. The sleepy headed sister you would wake up with nudges and “It’s Christmas!”
The early morning of the 24th of December, 1994, was wind: themed by wind; a cacophony of wind, a superfluity of wind; nothing but wind. It howled between the plaster and old cement/limestone walls of old and new New York. One in the morning, two in the morning, three in the morning: all of it was listening to howling, maleficent wind blowing between skyscrapers and threatening flights.
At four in the morning, you concede to the banshee wailing of the wind. You pack your few packages, your memories, your stupid “He Plays the Violin” and Henry Purcell December. You thank God for Entenmann’s in New York but dream of sugar cookies and Chex Mix at home. Screw, you think, the wind; I’m going home.
You, freshly hair-cutted, with pink-wrapped packages, with nostalgia and impatience, take Penn Station and every earthly device to get to the airport.
It’s nice in New York, you rehearse: there’s a steel-drum in front of Barnes and Noble, I get free baklava at Nick’s, the streets smell like smoke, chestnuts, and history.
You rehearse but your heart is stuck in popcorn balls, pipe-cleaner icicles, Hershey kisses, coloring books, your parents, your kid sister, cheap felt bathrobes and cookies for Santa (Chex Mix and carrots for Rudolph and team).
Never did a flight take longer. Never did a flight move so fast.
Even in 1994, one could move from concrete jungle to cornfield in an hour, give or take.
Even in 1994, one could take their fancy New York haircut and still find their way home. They could (you could) forget your bad Broadway, turn on the radio and hear Bing Crosby, and just be home again.
I don’t sit on the dryer anymore. I don’t keep a diary. I have not, since that time, had wrapping paper that is pink.
I haven’t had a haircut from Helga.
I haven’t worked under the table. (Look, the Indian/Calvin Klein/ Donna Karan eyewear is quite nice.)
I haven’t sang, performed, or even studied “He Plays the Violin.” Nor anything by Henry Purcell. Nor, another ditty of the moment, from She Loves Me, “Dear Friend:” “charming, romantic, the perfect cafe…”
In the million years that have passed, I have not any of the following: been to a “going out of business” Hallmark, purchased stickers from the roll, listened to a steel drum while it spit snowflakes, spent the 23rd into the 24th of December in a sweat while the wind howled angrily and intimated I might not go home.
In the million years that have passed since 1994, I have not forgotten a single year that preceded it: my family is everything and the years I have lived until 1994 are, quite possibly, the mother lodes and keystones of the essential “my existence.”
In the million years since 1994, I have perpetually been grateful that I do not open my door and instantly fall into my roommate’s strangled (and, no doubt, quite genuine) emotive thrusts to the red, orange, and blue candles. In whatever (probably very blessed) language that was.
In the million years since 1994, I have been glad that Sunset Boulevard has not hit some kind of resurgence. It had two good songs. And, well, not much else.
In the million years since 1994, I have been married twice, divorced once. And I would go through a million divorces to reach the marriage I have now.
I would go through a million years to find my parents and my sister and revisit any Christmas from about 1980-1992.
But, failing all of that, I would write too many words. To revisit one Christmas is to revisit them all. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And in 1994, if that damned plane hadn’t landed on time, well, there’d be a news story for the ages.
1994, 1984, 1974, 2004, 2014, doesn’t matter the year: If I can’t be home for Christmas…
Fish’s Eddy has glass things that sparkle in sunlight. H&H Bagels has the freshest, puffiest bagels in all Christendom. Zabar’s still smells like cloves and sophistication. Nick’s (most probably) still has free baklava with any order. Fairway still has cheap Bosch pears and “pimple mousse.” And, well, it’s 2017.
You’ll still prefer the chain generics of home. You’ll still take a flight too early, too crowded, too windy.
You’ll still— you’ll always— go home.
There is, really, no place quite like it.