I decided to go to New York to see Christmas.
It's at this time of year that Rockefeller Center, The Plaza Hotel, Sak's Fifth Avenue and the hustle-bustle of shopping at FAO Schwartz, Brentano's and the Museum of Modern Art beckon.
The snow, earmuffs, wool scarfs and gloves, boots and a warm coat pulled up to the ears. That's Christmas.
It's at this time that memories of Christmas rush in like a snow plow and fill the spirit with a glow so warm you could lie over a steamy manhole in Manhattan and die. It's a time my sister, mother and I come together in my mother's cozy apartment in one of the Art Deco brick buildings with no elevator in the old Dutch village of Woodhaven, only a 20 minute taxi ride away from 53rd Street where Christmas, I thought, has always been.
It did snow lightly, a faint powder on the dirty face of the city.
In Woodhaven, the powdered landscape looked like a scene from a Currier & Ives print. Two-story clapboard houses and brick apartment houses are crowned by a white fringe of tree branches, that appear like the elaborate hairdo of Mother Winter.
Our taxi hobbled through the narrow streets, which in the early 18th Century had been the home of Dutch immigrants such as the Van der Veers, Snedickers, Lotts and Wycokofs, now the names of streets and train stations; and later, in the 1830s, the summer homes of wealthy racing enthusiasts who came to the Union Course Race Track, which then made up a good portion of the community of Woodhaven. Since the turn of the century, the neighborhood received a good share of German and Irish immigrant working class and professionals who made their permanent home near Jamaica Avenue, an Indian trail turned into a toll road, and by the 1900s, a convenient elevated train connection to the city, which exists to this day.
Our Dial-A-Ride taxi zoomed across the Queensboro Bridge, which spans across Queens and Manhattan like white high wire over the bathtub of the East River, to 59th Street, where the traffic began to thicken and the taxi driver's temper rose. By the time we reached West 53rd Street, at the Museum of Modern Art, where Matt, the driver, let us off, he cursed the "young people," who, by avoiding the convenient subway, helped choked the city with their cars. "When I was dating," he said, "my ex-girlfriend and I would park on the Island and take the train into the city." He looked to be only in his 20s.
Congestion was not exactly the word for the mob scene at 53rd and Fifth Avenue on a Saturday afternoon. The mob was more like a platoon, bulldozing its way into the massive crush of human elbows, baby strollers, shopping bags, chestnut, hot dog and pretzel stands, with occasional homeless squatters and beggars, helping to clog the route.
I did see the tip-top of the 70-foot green-and-red-lighted Norway Spruce Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. I did see the 10-deep lineup of viewers along Sak's Fifth Avenue storybook Christmas windows. Not the windows. I was almost run down by a flurry of horse and buggies rounding the curb and got a taxicab glimpse of Ivana Trump's polished brass and sandblasted Plaza Hotel. The Picasso-Braque exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art was also like a bargain basement pantomime at a Macy's sale the day after Christmas, so we made a quick retreat to the upper floors, where '50s and '60s artist works appeared in rooms so quiet whispers echoed.
We did have a wimpy, wilted hot dog, a soggy pretzel and a measly handful of pistachios from an overpriced bagful, but it was the taxi driver, who had taken a hour to make his way from 59th Street through the throng of yuppie automobiles, whose sunny Irish face we were happiest to see.
Back up to Woodhaven, through white trees and parks, through the blur of Christmas decorations gilding rooftops and windows along the way; back to my mother's cozy kitchen, where a pot of tomato sauce and garlicky beef waited to team up with spaghetti.
My sister, mother and I had spent hours reminiscing, regaling one another, sometimes weeping over stories of the past and present-- howling so hard at times, we were sure the neighbors below and beyond had heard--while sipping tea, drinking coffee, munching on cookies, feasting on my mother's crispy burek filled with chicken and rice, and leeks cooked in olive oil.
We had some walks through the quiet neighborhood, listening to the sounds of English so foreign, I had forgotten I had once heard nothing else. "Wez youze goin'?" 80-year-old Mrs. Mac, who lived on the ground level, asked when we bumped into her during our walk.