Merry Christmas, Little Tree

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“The sun is shining, the grass is green

   The orange and palm trees sway

   There’s never been such a day

   In Beverly Hills, LA”

“White Christmas,” Irving Berlin, 1940

Since we were born and raised in the northeast, Christmas has either been a holiday of bright snow (at my grandparents weekend house upstate) or grey slush (outside our apartment on the Upper West Side). Great believers in the philosophy that geography equals destiny – and not being particular fans of snow in any form – Jamie and I have also sought happy holidays in Hawaii, Rome, and London; however, my most memorable Christmas was our first in Los Angeles.

Jamie had begun working in Culver City in October and had been too busy to look for a house or apartment. I was in New York and couldn’t wait for our holiday break so I could fly west for our first LA Christmas. Jamie told me repeatedly not to get my hopes up; he was living at the Beverly Hilton, working 18 hours every day at a new job, and was too exhausted to make a fuss. When I arrived on December 23, we would go shopping in Beverly Hills for gifts for one another and when Christmas Day came we would build a fire in the fireplace of the suite he swore he would book in place of the small room he usually inhabited and go out for a nice dinner. It wasn’t what I would have chosen – or even suggested – but Jamie had never been the king of romance so I agreed that his plan was fine. Not so deep down, however, I wanted something a little more festive, a touch more romantic, a tad more exotic, and began to consider how I might achieve it.

Due to a delayed flight, it was nearly midnight when Jamie picked me up at LAX on the twenty-third; he had come from his office and was barely awake so we drove immediately to the hotel.

I could see the festive magenta and turquoise holiday lights before we even pulled into the hotel’s crescent driveway. The central fountain had been disconnected and a massive tree drenched in lights stood in its place. The outside of the hotel was so bright that I wondered what was left for the lobby. I needn’t have been concerned; the lobby glittered with great swags of artificial pine wreathed with the same jewel-colored lights and huge ornaments in corresponding shades. There were giant silver metallic bows everywhere.   Seasonal music floated through the air. I cocked my ear. “Little Saint Nick” by the Beach Boys; what else?

“Wow,” I said as the elevator doors closed. “They really like Christmas.”

“Yeah, well,” he yawned, “they have a lot of big events here so people expect it.”

We exited the elevator on a lower floor, one with no suites. “I thought you were getting a suite for Christmas,” I said.

“There aren’t any available.”

I sighed. “So no fireplace, huh?”

“We don’t have a fireplace in our apartment, either, so what’s the difference?”

“I know. I just thought it would be fun to hang stockings on a fireplace mantel.”

Jamie scowled as he inserted the key card. “You didn’t seriously bring our stockings.”

“Of course I did. It’s Christmas.”

He sighed deeply.

The door swung open; I looked around; the room was barren by comparison to the opulent lobby. Not even a box of red-wrapped Christmas candy brightened the tasteful but monotonous ecru and mushroom-colored décor. “I see Santa’s elves haven’t been here, yet,” I observed.

“I’m busy!” Jamie snapped dropping the handle of my wheeled suitcase. “And who cares, anyway? It’s just a bunch of clutter that will be thrown away the next day.”

I tossed my tote bag on a small divan and turned to face him. “Where is your little dog Max?”

Jamie pulled off his tie and stepped out of his shoes, dropping it all where he stood. “What are you talking about?”

“You, Grinch. How are you going to get to Whoville to steal Christmas without transportation? You gotta tie the dog to your sled.”

He set his jaw as he pulled back the blanket of the bed and climbed between the sheets. “I’ll drive there. Neither dog nor sled required.” He snapped off the bedside lamp and commenced snoring.

Annoyed, I threw myself onto the small sofa and chewed my right thumbnail. So this was going to be Christmas. A hotel room with nothing Christmassy in it. I knew that hotels decorated guest rooms for Christmas, if asked. Obviously no one had asked. Suddenly I felt like a romantic idiot for insisting that we spend Christmas in LA rather than at home, for thinking it would be a grand adventure, for packing our needlepoint stockings in my carry-on bag. Who did I think I was married to, anyway? A Hallmark character?

My head was banging so I arose from the plushy sofa and dug in my carry-on for a nighttime sinus headache caplet, then cracked open a tiny bottle of Perrier from the minibar. I lay down on the empty side of the bed. Jamie was snoring like an enormous primeval animal and it was only by using every ounce of self-control I possessed that I resisted the temptation to push a pillow over his face to quiet him. Instead I clicked the button of the remote and instantly the giant screen television bloomed to life with a rerun of I Love Lucy. The Ricardos were just setting off for Hollywood with Fred and Ethel Mertz camped in the back seat of the car. I scowled at the screen. “Don’t even bother making the trip,” I advised Lucy. “You’ll have more fun in New York. Hollywood ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

I must have fallen asleep because when I next opened my eyes sunlight was streaming into the room from the open balcony window and there was a note from Jamie on my pillow. “Will be late. The hotel’s driver is named Doug. He will take you wherever you want to go. Here is his number.” I sighed. Evidently I should entertain myself today.

I showered and rode the elevator to the pool level dining room for breakfast. After signing the check I tapped Doug’s number into my shiny new iPhone. “Hi, Doug. My name is Laura and my husband told me that you might be able to take me shopping or sightseeing.”

“You bet,” came the voice through the phone. “He already booked me for the day.”

“Really? Great! I will be right there!”

Doug drove me first to Carroll & Co., Jamie’s favorite clothing store on North Canon. He had been so grumpy last night – and hadn’t even said goodbye this morning – that I presumed our joint shopping trip was cancelled. Jamie’s preferred salesman showed me a navy cashmere sweater Jamie had admired so I bought it and had it gift-wrapped. Doug tossed it into the trunk while I slid into the leather back seat of the black Mercedes. He slipped into the driver’s seat and glanced at me in the rear view mirror. “Where to? Time for some sightseeing or more shopping?”

I thought. “You know what I would like to see? I love Cecil B. DeMille movies and I know that his original studio was a barn. It’s still around, all restored and full of memorabilia; it’s somewhere in Hollywood.”

Doug knew it. “The Lasky-DeMille Barn. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s on North Highland, not far from the Hollywood Bowl. Would you like to see it next?”

I nodded, excited. “Oh, yes, please!”

With the traffic, it took about a half hour to get there. As we pulled into the lot, I noticed that there were Christmas trees for sale at the far end. After touring the museum and buying a new biography of DeMille, I asked Doug to drive me to the tree lot.

He looked puzzled. “Aren’t you staying in the hotel?” he asked.

I nodded.

“But you want a tree?”

I nodded again.

“Didn’t you see the big one in the lobby?”

“It isn’t the same.”

“Okay, here we go.” He accelerated, then waited in the car while I wandered through the selection of trees.

“You need help?” asked a boy of about eighteen.

“Um, yes, I want a tree.”

“You came to the right place.” He gestured at the forest.

I blushed. “No, I mean I want a particular kind of tree. A little tree, like in the Peanuts Christmas special. Do you know what I mean? A little little tree.” I held my hands about twelve inches apart.

He frowned. “You mean that cartoon with the bald kid; what’s his name? Charlie Brown? I remember that show. You want a little pieceashit tree like that?”

I nodded.

“What are you, the do-gooder kid with the blanket?”

“No, I am not the do-gooder kid with the blanket. I just have a very small space.” I looked around. “All of these are enormous.”

His chest puffed. “Sure they are, lady. Fresh-cut. These are the best trees in LA. Pick one.”

I shook my head. “No, thanks. I need a little little one.”

“Why don’t you just go buy one o’ those little planted ones in buckets at the grocery store?”

My ears still rang with Jamie’s snarky comment about having to clean up the remnants of Christmas.

“Uh, no, no evidence,” I said.

“Evidence? What you mean? It ain’t a crime to have a Christmas tree.”

“You don’t know my husband, Mr. Scrooge,” I answered.

He frowned, puzzled.

“Never mind. If you don’t have a little one, I’ll be on my way.” I turned.

“Wait. You mean you really want one o’ those little sticks with needles like in that cartoon?”

“Yup.”

“Here.” He picked up a branch from the ground and snipped the end deftly, revealing a fresh, sappy edge. “Stick this in water and it’ll be okay for you.”

“How much?”

He shook his head. “No charge. You got a Christmas-hating husband, you got enough problems.”

I thanked him and trotted back to the car. Doug stared at my branch. “That’s what you wanted?” he asked doubtfully.

“Uh huh.”

“Well. . . you got one. Where to, now?”

“Back to the hotel, but first can we stop at a drug store?”

“Sure; there is a Rite Aid a couple of blocks from the hotel.”

We joined the traffic snaking along Highland Avenue heading back to Beverly Hills. Doug dropped me in front of a Rite Aid and I trotted straight to the holiday aisle. Tiny plastic ornaments were on 40% off sale. Sure, it was four o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. I caught myself just as I my fingers touched the box. No evidence. Shit. What was a scrawny branch without some ornaments to turn it into a Christmas tree? I chewed my thumbnail and considered. Suddenly an idea from my second grade Brownie troop popped into my head and I spun on my spike heel and ran to the snacks aisle. I grabbed a large bag of Smart Pop popcorn and a couple of boxes of dried cherries. I paid for them and ran outside to find Doug. I had to hurry; I had a lot of work to do.

The hotel room door opened a few minutes after seven that evening. Jamie entered with a huge orange Hermes shopping bag dangling from one hand and his briefcase hanging from the other. I was sitting on the sofa watching the news. In the center of the round glass coffee table sat an ice bucket; inside was my branch with strings of popcorn alternated with dried cherries looped around it. At its base rested the green Carroll & Co. box.

Jamie nodded toward the display. “Nice tree,” he said.

“Thanks. It’s totally biodegradable; after Christmas I’ll take it apart and feed it to the birds. Nothing to clean up.”

“Good idea.”

“The Carroll & Co. box is for you. I didn’t think you’d get back in time for us to go shopping together so I just had to rely on the salesman’s advice. If you hate it, I am sure you can return it.”

“I doubt I’ll hate it. They know what I like there.”

He handed me the orange bag. “So do you want to open them now or wait until tomorrow morning?”

I thought. “Let’s wait.” I smiled. It was a popcorn tree, true, but Carroll’s and Hermes gifts sat under it. “Not exactly the gifts of the magi, is it?”

Jamie grinned. “It is if they’d been married to you.”

We went to a coffee shop in town for a snack then attended midnight mass at The Church of the Good Shepherd on North Roxbury. By the time we got back to the Hilton, the lobby was silent.

In our room, the maid had turned down the bed and left some lights on low. She had also tied a red bow to the top of my Snoopy Christmas tree. We sat on the king sized bed and opened our gifts with the burning log iYule app playing on my Ipad as it rested against the blank television screen. Now it really was Christmas.

Welcome to the Hotel California

beverly_hills_hotel_facebookOur little house in Santa Monica wasn’t air-conditioned, so on the hot days, we would walk down the hill to the beach where there was always a breeze and the water was cool. Weekday afternoons after work were best because the beach was practically deserted then; the only sounds were crashing waves, shrieking gulls, and the occasional zzzzzzing of bicycle bells on the Strand, the paved path that runs from Will Rogers State Beach in the Palisades all the way south to Torrance. We would walk north toward the Pier then sit on the concrete wall bordering the beach to watch the sunset. The sand glowed gold for miles in the pink light while the plashing Pacific glittered at its edge. Palm trees cast their long, shaggy, grey shadows. I always found this experience restorative. Rarely was an afternoon so dreadful that a stroll along the seafront didn’t dispel the stress and gloom. By the time we were ready to trudge up the hill for dinner, the sun had set and the breeze had picked up.

The heat had been oppressive during the week before our twenty-third wedding anniversary. For hours we sat on the front porch in the evening after our beach walks, eating ice cream and trying to decide what to do to celebrate.   I wanted to go away for the weekend but Jamie was too busy at the studio so we tried to devise a day trip or some other out-of-the ordinary event that would be special and fun, but not take us too far. Despite batting ideas around like two cats with a wiffle ball, we never came up with anything we both liked and eventually we ceased discussing it.

The Saturday of our anniversary I awoke at dawn feeling damp and queasy. The house was silent; Jamie was still asleep, although Spencer opened an eye to watch me. I pushed my bangs from my damp forehead. Despite all of the windows being open, the air was still, making the room stuffy, and I could feel a thin sheen of sweat glistening on my body. The room was really hot. If it weren’t a weekend, it would have been a terrific beach day.

I slid out of bed and padded downstairs in my skimpy, cotton nightgown, Spencer at my heels. After pulling open the heavy oak door, I read the thermometer affixed to the wall and was surprised that the temperature outside was already 87. That didn’t bode well. If our house was a pizza oven now, the Valley must be a sauna. That meant that all roads in and around Santa Monica and the beach itself would be packed with day-trippers seeking relief from the sweltering heat. I doubted any would be forthcoming, anyway, on a day like today: since we lived only three blocks from the beach, we could usually feel the breezes flurrying up the spine of the walkstreet and this morning there were none.

I sat on the top step and pulled my hair up and tied it in a messy knot wondering how to spend today. I doubted we would be doing anything special since we hadn’t managed to agree on what to do. The walkstreet was silent. The fronds on Jean-Pierre’s palm trees hung motionless in the still air. No one was moving except Spencer and Simone, the neighbor’s cat. I peeled my bare legs from the gritty step and wandered back into the house to flip the coffee pot switch. No matter how hot the day, I needed my steaming morning caffeine.

Balancing the mug on my Kindle, I returned to the porch to read the LA Times. By the time Jamie awoke, I was pretty much through all of the stories that interested me.

“Jeez,” he said, leaning against the doorjamb in baggy khaki shorts. “It’s gruesome out here.”

“Want to go to the beach?” I asked, already knowing the answer. Jamie hated crowded beaches.

“Hell, no. It’ll be packed with all the Valley people. Why they don’t just swim in their pools I’ll never know.”

“So what should we do? I hate to waste a perfectly good Saturday. And it is our anniversary so we should do something special, something memorable.”

Jamie pulled his left hand through his tousled hair. “Well, I have to pick up shirts at the laundry and your dress at the dry cleaner.”

“And after the thrill of running errands has passed?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe we’ll go out for dinner. Let’s see later.” He retreated upstairs toward the bathroom to shower.

“I want to do something fun!” I shouted after him. I sighed. Anniversaries were always bigger deals to me than to him.

I was still reading on the porch when he returned talking on his cell phone. He kissed my ear and trotted down the stairs, disappearing over the rise of the sidewalk.

Figuring it would be nice if I didn’t sit around in my pajamas all day, I hoisted myself up from the porch swing and started up the stairs to shower, but the heat immediately drained me of all energy so instead I flopped on the bed, picked up my Kindle, and read some more. When Jamie returned a little over an hour later, I was still lying on the damp and rumpled sheets engrossed in my novel.

“Hey, I know what we should do today,” he said, pulling the plastic wrapping from my black cocktail dress and hanging it in the closet. “And it’s something special. Let’s go to the Beverly Hills Hotel. We can get a room, hang out at the pool, have dinner in the Polo Lounge, and not have to deal with the traffic or the heat.” I stared at him until he added “And celebrate our anniversary.”

I considered; while it sounded like fun, it would certainly be an expensive twenty-four hours just to avoid sweating on the beach with families from Studio City. But it wasn’t just for that; it was for our wedding anniversary. It would be romantic, like a miniature second honeymoon. Actually, the Beverly Hills Hotel had always reminded me of the Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki Beach where we had honeymooned all those years ago. “Okay.” I stood. “And while I’m in the shower, you can go next door and ask Debbie to babysit Spencer.”

Within an hour we were standing in the lobby of the iconic hotel, cool, filtered air flowing enthusiastically around us. Jamie handed his American Express card to the desk clerk and I rubbed my hands together and gazed at the famous Don Loper-designed banana leaf wallpaper covering the wall leading to the stairs. “Whoa, it’s actually chilly in here,” I said.

The clerk heard me. “You folks from out of town? From someplace hot?”

I giggled. “Yeah, Santa Monica.”

His eyes widened. “No way. You came ten miles to Beverly Hills when you live by the beach?”

“It’s unbearably hot there today and we live in a turn-of-the-century beach bungalow with no air conditioning, so, yeah, we came ten miles.” I grinned.

He smiled back displaying his perfectly even, perfectly white teeth. “I guess you won’t be wanting the Visitors’ Guide to Beverly Hills then.”

“No, thanks.”

Our room was lovely and cool, but we were eager to relax by the pool, to read and have a snack, so Jamie unpacked quickly, tossing our few clothes into a couple of dresser drawers. We changed into our swimwear and headed downstairs.

The pool area was bright and sunny, perfect for soaking up local color. We chose lounges near the restaurant because I like to people-watch and there is always a lot to see in Beverly Hills. One common sight that never failed to amuse me was a woman wearing a swimsuit and 6-inch Jimmy Choo stilettos carrying her $15,000 alligator Birken to sit by a pool. I wasn’t disappointed; there were four of them.

After we’d been roasting for a few hours, watching the sun descend over the stately palms and the pink stucco walls, Jamie suggested we return to our room to shower and dress for dinner.   Hand-in-hand we wandered up the sloped and curving path, dipping our heads under low-hanging giant bird-of-paradise leaves, until we reached the elevator.

Back in our cool room, I watched the television news while Jamie showered, then he took my place on the sofa to wait while I did. I had just squeezed my eyes shut, squirted shampoo into my hair, and begun to lather when I sensed that something had changed. I couldn’t hear the television anymore. The gusty sound of air conditioning billowing softly into the room from the large vents seemed to have stopped, as well. Rinsing my hair and face, I opened my eyes. The bathroom was shrouded in darkness.

“Jame!” I called. “It’s dark in here. What’s going on?” No answer. “Jame?” Just as I finished wrapping my hair in a towel in preparation for climbing out of the tub, I heard the door latch. “Jamie! What’s going on?”

The bathroom door opened and he entered. No light followed him. “I don’t know. The emergency lights are on in the hall. The power seems to be off on this entire floor.”

I shrugged into a robe and we felt our way through the furniture to the balcony and slid open the thick glass door. Everything outside was black. “Listen,” Jamie said. “You can hear the traffic sounds.” He was right. The night was so eerily quiet that we could hear the whoosh of the cars on Mulholland and Sunset.

“Geez, it’s like the aliens landed,” I observed tying the sash of the terrycloth robe. “What do you think is going on?”

Jamie shrugged.

“Do the phones work when the power’s off?” I asked.

“Oh, sure. They have enormous generators here.”

“So call the front desk and ask,” I suggested.

Jamie stared at me. “You mean now, along with the other four hundred people who are in this hotel tonight?”

I stared back. “Yes, unless you want to be the only one out of four hundred and two people who don’t know what’s going on.”

He lifted a brow. “I won’t be the only one; you don’t know, either.” Regardless, he felt his way to the phone and dialed the front desk; amazingly enough, someone answered. Evidently, there had been a serious traffic accident in Beverly Hills and a car had hit a power pole. The power would be out for hours, probably throughout the night.   Of course, the hotel had generators but not enough power to run all of its functions. Unfortunately, one of the biggest drains on electricity was the air conditioning; that had to be sacrificed, however the management foresaw no problems as a cool night was forecast and they had plenty of fans. Would we like one? If we did, one would be sent to our room, along with extra flashlights. No, regrettably the Polo Lounge would not be honoring our dinner reservation this evening as the emergency had forced its early closure.

I sat on the carpet and listened as Jamie relayed this to me. “Doesn’t this room cost a boatload of money?” I asked.

He nodded. “A boat and a half,” he agreed.

“Well, that must be the definition of irony, then. Spending a zillion dollars to find ourselves in the same situation we were in earlier today in Santa Monica for free.”

“Not really the same,” he said. “We still had power in Santa Monica.”

I burst into laughter and rolled over onto the carpet.

“Okay,” I gasped, “so we are extravagant idiots. Whatever. It’s done now. We’re here. The current question is what next? We need to find somewhere for dinner. I’m starving.”

“Well, since there’s no Polo Lounge, where do you want to eat?

“Wherever you want is fine.”

Jamie shrugged then thought for a moment. “Pink’s?” he suggested.

I considered briefly. This night wasn’t going to go the way I had expected, anyway. My fantasy of a romantic stay in a fabled Southern California hotel with rich furnishings and endless amenities seemed a lot less likely now with the reality of whirring fans, no dinner, and a pocket flashlight to find our way along the corridors. Why not complete the evening by sitting in plastic lawn chairs and eating chili dogs in the dark on La Brea Avenue?

“Sure, why not?” As I pushed myself up from the thick carpet a lock of damp hair slapped the side of my face. “Let me just . . . oh, you know what? Without electricity I can’t dry my hair.”

“So?”

“So by tomorrow morning I am going to look like Little Orphan Annie with a magnesium deficiency.”

Jamie shrugged. “We’ll check out early. No one will see you.”

I scowled. “Thanks. You might have said I’ll be beautiful anyway.”

“I might have,” he agreed, holding out his hands to help me rise.

I grabbed both of his hands. “That’s why I married you, you know, twenty-three years ago today. Your undying romanticism. Besides, I knew you’d be the kind of man who’d buy me a chili dog for dinner, then take me camping at a fancy Beverly Hills hotel with no electricity.”

“Glad to hear it. Then you’re not disappointed with the result. Happy Anniversary.” He kissed my damp forehead. “Come on, get dressed. I don’t want to have to spend the rest of the night standing in line behind the tour bus from Rancho Cucamonga just to get a hot dog.”

“Oh, sure, like tourists from Rancho Cucamonga drive all the way to La Brea at this time of night,” I scoffed as I pulled a white t shirt over my wet hair.

“No, they are there. I went for lunch one day and the line was down the block.”

“I think that was because it was lunchtime. It’s . . .,” I glanced at my watch on the bedside table “after nine. Ohhhh, hey, how late is Pink’s open, anyway?”

“Three a.m, on a Saturday.”

I grabbed his arm and propelled him toward the door. “Oh, honey, come on. Let’s get going. I want you to have plenty of time to make friends with all those tourists in line.”