SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 18, 2011

Christmas on the Train

 

I wouldn’t exactly say I go to extreme lengths to avoid the holiday season (though this past Friday I did promptly vacate a bar after the bartender started playing Christmas carols on the stereo). For the most part I just keep my head down and ignore it. It’s another advantage the landlord never mentioned to Modern Bunker Living. Living in a hole in the ground makes it very easy to forget that the Christmas spirit is turning the world into a mad grinning nuthouse filled with frantic and hateful joy. But you’d never know it because I can’t see outside. Good thing, too, as I live in one of those neighborhoods where people tend to go a little batshit with the holiday decorations. Christmas is king, of course—the one that drives them into a frenzied, rabid-eyed mania—but it doesn’t stop there. I didn’t think it was even possible to decorate an entire house for Columbus Day, but I’ve since been proven wrong. As things stand, however, I can’t see it so it’s easy to forget.

            The thing about New York, though, is that if you’re dumb enough to step outside during the season, Christmas has a way of finding you, of tracking you down and descending on you like a swarm of gnats. It knows you’re trying to hide from it, so if you give it the opportunity it’s gonna sucker-punch you like a sixth grade bully named “Rusty.”

            I was a little hung over but not too bad (having fled the bar early the night before) and was on a train headed back into Brooklyn. The car I was in was quiet. Only a smattering of people were scattered about the seats. I barely noticed anything, focused as I was on counting the stops. I had twenty stops to go, and if I lost count, I was screwed.

            The doors opened at Prince St. and I paid little attention until I heard some girls at the far end of the car giggle, “Hey, it’s Santa! Where you heading, Santa?”

            Sure enough, a man in full Santa regalia had stepped aboard. Hat, beard, red suit, padded belly, black boots. My whole life I've had trouble with Santa showing up in unexpected places—from banks and grocery stores to my parents’ kitchen.

            “Santa’s been a little too jolly this morning,” Santa told them. “So Santa’s not exactly sure where he’s going.” He tried to offer his fans a bit of merry ho-ho-hoing, but it quickly devolved into a ragged coughing jag.

            The girls shouted more questions at him about reindeer and presents, but Santa stumbled over to an empty seat. “Santa can’t hear you anymore,” Santa told them. “Santa likes Bob Marley.” I guess that’s when he turned on the iPod. Funny, I wouldn't have expected Santa to have such a heavy California accent.

            Later Morgan would remind me that it was the day of the annual Santa Pub Crawl. Gotta say, that’s the one holiday tradition in New York I kind of appreciate, as hundreds of Santas keep the magic and joy of the season alive in the hearts of local children by staggering drunkenly down the crowded sidewalks of the East Village, and vomiting in the gutter.

            (I know a guy who was an official Macy’s Santa a few years ago. He was a professional actor, an outrageous drunk, and in a word, insane, and he considered the annual Pub Crawl a kind of sacrilege.)

            At Canal St., a young boy of about eight got on the train with his father and sat down across from me. “Look, Dad,” the boy whispered excitedly. “It’s Santa!”

            The father took in the nearly comatose jolly old elf across the way and surmised immediately what the story was. “Yes it is, son. But you know what? Let’s not bother Santa right now. He’s off duty. We’ll go see him soon when he’s working, okay?” The boy seemed to accept this, and was quiet.

            Two stops later, in walked a small Mexican with an accordion. I’ve always been a fan of the accordion and was expecting him to be another of those one-man mariachi bands. But then after muttering a few quiet words in Spanish, he broke into a rousing version of “Jingle Bells.’

            A drunken Santa was one thing, but this was pushing it. He was standing in front of me and I decided to trip him with the cane the moment he started walking down the aisle. Then, however, “Jingle Bells” broke off into Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and this Mexican played it like a demon. Rarely have I heard such accordion playing before. It’s a complicated instrument, and this guy’s fingers were flying over the keys and buttons, playing the piece at triple the usual tempo. It sounded like three or four accordions were playing at once. I changed my mind about tripping him, and slid the cane back in. I was very impressed. Didn’t give him any change, but I was very impressed.

            He stepped off the train at the next stop, and Santa, roused from his Bob Marley stupor commented, “Man, that dude could really fuckin’ play!”

            A few minutes later Santa stood shakily and bumped his way off the train to see if any of the bars around the Seaport were open yet. He was replaced by a troop of Puerto Ricans—two men and a woman—who were arguing in increasingly loud and incoherent Spanish over the best way to get to Coney. They continued arguing, nearly coming to blows at one point, for the next eight stops. I have never said this before and will likely never say it again, but I was starting to miss Santa. Then again I couldn’t see these three—it was entirely possible they were drunken Santas, too.

            At Thirty-sixth Street in Brooklyn, the two men stopped and left the train. The woman stayed behind.

            “My god,” the woman said in perfect English as the doors closed. “Those two guys are impossible.”

 

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