Tinsel on a Palm Tree

Christmas is on my mind. As a season in San Diego it is to me as cruel as April was to the poet T.S. Eliot. New Year’s, I maintain, does not matter so much. My complaints about Yuletide San Diego are not unique (they hardly ever are, I’m told by some relatives, except possibly in the complaints’ sheer volume and number) and center around a single fact: my son, my only child, is fully grown. I am certain it goes this way for most parents enamored of the sentiment and glitz surrounding the Christian, religious holiday. I hardly think it is the same for the Jewish, who never bought into either this particular faith-based premise or the subsequent nonsense in the first place, as well as, say, the Islamic, for nearly identical reasons. Include yourself, if you like, or any of a hundred other cultures, religions, or belief systems. Ironically, if you will, I would venture to say that those who celebrate Christmas most enthusiastically in this country, and in San Diego, have no real belief systems at all, much less one involving a divine birth over 2000 years ago that might actually dictate behavior. Belief systems: by which I mean beyond the laws of economics, and maybe one or two superstitious leanings regarding the stock market or sports wagers.

I am writing this on a blistering Sunday in November. The heart of the Sudan might be more climactically conducive to the mood. Bethlehem can’t be too much farther north latitude-wise, though I will check that (lest that unavoidable character, usually, for some reason, in El Cajon, corrects me). The point is in trying to strike that ironic note in the disparity of climates: the ones we associate with, for its obviousness, a white Christmas. It has been observed numerous times, and often to great comic effect, that California and Christmas are oil-and-water–like. Movies are best at this, but Christopher Isherwood, Joan Didion, Nathanael West, Paul Theroux — Lordy! — even O. Henry have all made much of this no-small-thing. The stock icon here being tinsel on a palm tree. What I may be getting at is that “The Christmas Spirit,” however you define it, can strike anywhere.

And it does happen in San Diego. I am not here to tell you it does not, so please set the ropes down and let that blinking cursor on your email window do a few reps before engaging your outrage.

Here are two true things, both of which happened recently in the Ralphs grocery store in Hillcrest.

I was with a friend, more or less my age, and helping him shop for things like bananas and Ensure (breakfast of old guys). Dick suffers from something that sounds like nonspecific peripheral neuropathy.... That’s not it, but it sounds close. It bends him over like a spoon in Uri Geller’s souvenir drawer. The produce department is adjacent to the pharmacy, and somewhere between the bananas and the antacids, Dick had a stroke. Not at first all that dramatic, he simply went suddenly and almost completely blind. He told me this as he clutched the shopping-cart rail with whitening knuckles. His gaze was off somewhere slightly above and past the canned meats and into infinity. I told him to hang on, grateful that several medical professionals were only a bin of avocados away.

Dick remained calm but had gone pale and his eyes were tearing. “I’m blind, man. Can’ t see a freaking thing. My heart’ s racing.”

I turned toward the pharmacy and raised my voice just a little — really. “My friend’ s having, I think, a cardiac event of some sort. Says he can’ t see and could you…maybe a glass of water?”

The three or four staff members behind the pharmacy counter turned slowly, gracefully, as if in a rehearsed ballet move. They turned their backs to us. While Dick had been stricken blind, so had Providence chosen this moment to silence an entire squad of pharmacists their hearing. I repeated my request for water and asked if they might call someone. Dick clutched my wrist and said, “No, no. Don’ t make a deal out of this.”

I did not want to say “stroke,” being as superstitious as anyone. Instead, I repeated (because I had heard the phrase in regard to me some years ago, just before the pacemaker), “A cardiac event of some kind.” A full minute or longer passed before a gentleman handed me a dusty, silted prescription bottle full of lukewarm water. He said nothing. I thanked him. Dick begged for another (sorry, man, but you did), and slowly another amber vial of murky water appeared. During this entire scene, no eye contact was established between the staff and either me or Dick. I told him to hang on to the cart rail, and I guided him out, stopping to pay for the few items we had collected. I drove him to my place (sans driver’ s license), and he spent the night on my bed. I slept on the floor. It was marginally an improvement on the mattress. The next morning, I took him, still sightless and speaking with an odd syntax, as if English were not his first language, to Mercy’ s emergency room. He spent five days there, until his lack of insurance dictated his recovery.

He is in another hospital now, his bill financed by a friend with superior means.

During that time, I thought of an act of kindness involving another of Ralphs’ pharmacists, one who was not present during the above, corporately negligible crisis. She had extended to me this kindness twice and not long ago. It was simple enough, but on an order of decency above and beyond. She was and is an attractive and diminutive Asian woman, who understood I could not afford the medication I needed at Ralphs’ prices and so called Costco to see what they charged. She gave me that same price. She even called me a good customer to someone over at Costco. I don’ t know her name, but I thank her profusely.

Days later, I asked a clerk at the checkout stand what had happened that day at the pharmacy with Dick. She suggested that someone might have been afraid of a lawsuit. I agreed with her that someone was certainly afraid of something.

* * *

The other day, I was interviewed by an undergrad journalism student from UCSD. Lorie Grant asked about the money one might expect entering the field of print journalism, and I responded as accurately as I could. Within days, hoping to be helpful to me, she had emailed some Help Wanted pages off the Net. One looked fairly promising — a data-entry position — and though I have yet to examine the offer more closely, this email struck me very much like a cyber Christmas card. She was not trying to be humorous; it was in the Christmas spirit of being charitable — although it could have been a Labor Day card. Thank you, Lorie. I am in no way making fun of you. In fact, I intend to follow up on that ad, I do have idiosyncratic typing skills, and as for what this might have to do with the holidays (Christmas, in particular), I can only say that it struck me as a uniquely San Diego type of holiday remembrance — you know, almost like a bumper sticker: “WELCOME TO SAN DIEGO. GOT A JOB?”

* * *

It was around Thanksgiving that I received this letter from a reader. It read, in part: “Thank you so much for writing me back.” His first letter was in response to a piece of mine, a collaboration with another writer called “The Heroin Chronicles,” and his assumption had been that I was a lifelong junkie, as described by my collaborator. My response was to correct this outrage. (The very idea!) He went on: “That’ s all I really wanted anyhow.”

I had responded to him briefly and confessed to years of struggle with alcohol, but not, in the end, saying all that much about it, because like Melville’ s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “I prefer not to.” Instead, I had included a quote from Shakespeare’ s Othello: “O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should, with joy, pleasure, revel and applause, transform ourselves into beasts.”

But the correspondent was more interested in comparing notes on mutual, past stomping grounds in Manhattan’ s West Side in the 1970s. He described his father’s body being found on the steps of 310 W. 70th St. and his habit, as a young man, of drinking at a bar called McGlade’s, just a block from where I tended bar at that same time. He spelled it Dazzle’s when it was, in fact, spelled Dazzels, due to the German owner’s unfamiliarity with English, or possibly just his inherent and gay whimsy. He (the letter writer) thanked me, in the spirit of the season, for bringing back dubious memories. He did not say dubious. The man, whom I do not wish to make fun of here, lives in the beach areas of San Diego and included a Thanksgiving commemorative stamp on the envelope. He wished me “Happy Thanksgiving” just above his closing quote from Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and The Sirens of Titan, quite as if it explained everything one cared to name in terms of fate, the old cookie crumbling: “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” Followed by his possibly appropriate, inscrutable signature.

The Vonnegut quote struck me as an underlying attitude among those of us who have made our way, or found ourselves, here in San Diego. A shrugging off of personal accountability, if not outright responsibility, karma, intent, failure, or success, and the quote did seem, in context, to be a benediction suitable for Thanksgiving. The primary thanks the letter-writer was offering me was for responding at all to his loneliness, isolation, disenfranchisement, and alienation. This sense was overwhelming when I read the newspaper clippings he had included, which were unrelated to anything I had written that might have moved him. They did mention his name, spelled correctly, several times. I was thoughtless when discarding them. But this seemed to be the greater point: his postscript was to “Toss the articles, they’re old hat.”

Oh. I was right about our latitudes, San Diego’s, and that of Bethlehem’s, by the way. Close, anyway. Close enough for me.
John Brizzolara

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