My Anti-Christmas Heart Is Almost Melted

Around noon, I spend about 20 minutes talking to a producer for one of the network morning shows in New York, which may or may not have me on the set next week to chat (live TV!), about what’s hot and what’s not in 2003. The Washington Post’s annual “In/Out” prognostication, aka “The List,” which I volunteered to research and compile this year, is looking a lot better today than it did yesterday. Stephanie Beard, a “Style” section page designer, is already gathering up various wire service and file photos that will poke out all over the page along with the List. I’d promised her I would have most of the List finished tonight, before she leaves for a short holiday break. She’ll design the page on New Year’s Eve (live newspapering!) and it will run, as ever, on New Year’s Day. I’ll probably be futzing around with “in” and “out” items up until Stephanie sends the page to press. I have a hard time letting go.

Cheryl, the TV producer, talks fast, and I try to talk faster. I quickly realize our conversation is my audition; she’s trying to see how fast I am on my toes, and if I at least sound like interesting television. (For all she knows, I weigh 600 pounds, wear only tank tops, and have boils all over my face.) I toss her a dozen or so items that will appear on the list, and she asks me to “talk about” each one, expound on it. TV people are forever asking sources to “talk about that some more,” and my brain and mouth collaborate on a reasonable attempt at media-savvy effervescence. Cheryl seems pleased with our conversation at this point; somewhere in New York my name is now probably on an index card push-pinned to a bulletin board of potential talk-show guests. She makes sure I’m available to come up to New York on Monday night and be ready early Tuesday morning for the show. The whole idea of this actually happening passes for great excitement in my life. Like so many Americans who desperately apply to be on reality-based TV shows, I am similarly hitching my skirts for the chance of a few minutes on the boob tube.

America should know, to some extent, that I’m a fraud. I’m not in the fashion realm, or the trend-spotting business, or an expert in demographics or retail or entertainment. I have no idea what’s really in store for pop culture in 2003, but I’m more than happy to talk like I do. It’s my List, after all.

Even though it’s Christmas Eve in a deserted newsroom, I get so busy on various projects that when I look up at the clock it’s already after 2. I put on my coat and walk down empty L Street to Stoney’s, a bar between 13th and 14th Streets, for lunch. Stoney’s makes the world’s heartiest, thickest grilled cheese sandwich—with bacon, onions, and tomato slices—and I let myself have one every month or so. Stoney’s, a favorite of retired cops, is small and narrow and hazardously thick with cigarette smoke. I suppose it’s the kind of place people think reporters would hang out at, when the disappointing truth is that we mostly eat at Au Bon Pain or those food-by-the-pound places.

All the barstools are occupied by what seems to be the usual clientele. In my mind all the women at Stoney’s are secretaries and all the men just reported lousy quarterly revenues. I sit at a table and read the paper and await grilled-cheese bliss. Outside it starts to snow, and I hope the hard-core Christmas people out there are in mid-gasp with pleasure. (I also expect the Metro desk back at the newsroom has marshaled its available troops for our typical panic-laced coverage of “the commute,” or in this case, “Christmas travel delays.” Typically the Post gives off the feeling of being editorially opposed to almost any kind of weather; I hope tomorrow’s front page celebrates the quiet grace of snow, for once.)

I work until just after 7 p.m. and leave the office with my good pal Tom Sietsema, the paper’s restaurant critic. Tom, who is one the most purely nice and polite people I think I have ever met, has invited me to the home of his brother, John, for Christmas Eve dinner. Tom’s parents are also here, visiting from their winter home in Florida, and John has invited his friend Cynthia. We’re a table of six. Tom and I get my car out of the garage across from the Post and set off cautiously in the (now) drizzle and slush across the 14th Street Bridge toward Alexandria. We get there around 8, and my anti-Christmas heart almost melts at the first whiff of all the warmth and trimmings that meet us at the door. I can’t feel anything but the gratitude of a man who forgot to plan Christmas. John, who’s in the military, has given us the full Yule assault: tree, lights, snacks, brined turkey, and stuffing, Bing. Once in a while I fall, reluctantly but limply, into someone else’s holiday world. I like the reportorial quality of learning as I go about another family’s dynamics, traditions, and sensing even the tiniest tensions among them. The Sietsemas grew up in small-town Minnesota. Tom’s parents think Fargo, the Coen brothers magnificent 1996 movie about Minnesotans, was an unfortunate exaggeration, but the longer dinner goes on, and the more wine we drink, the more accurate it seems. I love their stories about the frozen lakes, the snowmobile afternoons, the odd neighbors. Yer darn tootin’.

By the time we get back to D.C., it’s nearly midnight. I drop Tom off at his place in Logan Circle and realize that Lady (my dinged-up 1995 Thunderbird) is running on fumes. Christmas arrives while I pump gas at the Mobil on 15th and U. I’m the only customer, and a squeegee man wanders out of the darkness and sets to work on my windshield without asking. (Squeegee guys, like the L Street hookers, seem to be drifting back into the periphery. Out: Starbucks, In: Squeegee men? I associate them with the last Bush administration and the last bad economy, which probably isn’t fair, but it’s a harbinger all the same.) There’s a light spit falling from the sky and what passes for a silent night. Other writers might try to cash in on this moment and hand the squeegee guy a $20 bill or extrapolate some meaning from it all, whatever it is.

I think we sometimes look too hard for a Christmas moment where it simply isn’t happening. I’m pretty sure it’s not happening now.