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.

The Most Over-Privileged English Teacher of All

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Jamie’s job at the studio came with quite a few social, business, and political obligations. While they were always glamorous, they were usually not a lot of fun. Well, not a lot of fun for me. Jamie networked and schmoozed the room all night while I perched somewhere and watched the Beautiful People in their native habitat. People seldom spoke to me; I wasn’t in The Business, which made me all but invisible.

One night we went to Paramount Studios on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood for a fundraiser for a prominent Democratic presidential candidate. Dressed to kill in tux and cocktail dress, we left the walkstreet before it was even dark; these events always had astounding levels of security.

When we reached the lot, it appeared that half of Los Angeles County was attending this fifteen hundred dollar per plate dinner. Parking was a nightmare with everyone crowding their Mercedes, Bentleys, and Jags into the narrow Hollywood side streets lined with tiny bungalows and curious locals sitting on their front stoops eying us.

I was wearing five-inch stilettos and it was four blocks to the studio’s famous stucco gates. “Damn, they couldn’t provide a drive on pass for this,” I grumbled.

“Not at our donor level,” Jamie answered as he slowed his steps to match mine. “Besides, look at how many people are here. They’d all want one.”

“Are we all going to be in the same place?” I asked. “How big a stage are they using for this, anyway?”

Jamie shrugged. “I don’t know which stage we’re in; they’ll tell us inside at the reservation table, but all of these people aren’t going to be with us. You could get in the general lot party for two-fifty but no dinner, just entertainment, and maybe a movie star or two.”

“What’s the difference?” I answered. “Nobody ever eats at these things, anyway. Except me, I mean. I always wonder what happens to all of the uneaten food. What a waste.”

We’d finally come within sight of the studio; the Bronson Gates and the burbling fountain were right in front of us; behind it stood Security, the event entrance complete with beautiful young women as greeters, the gate itself, and finally, more Security.

We waited in line for a few minutes and, upon checking in, received tiny black and white clapper-shaped paper tickets with the Paramount logo and our names on them. I watched as other people received their tickets. They were all different shapes denoting which level party the holder was permitted to enter. That made it easy for Security to shepherd the visitors to the correct part of the lot for whatever level of entertainment their donation entitled them to attend.

Our dinner was in a stage on the other side of the lot, so we began the trek. On the way, Jamie saw lots of people he knew so the journey took a very long time, what with all that stopping and chatting. As I waited for him and wished for a studio golf cart to appear, I watched the lower-priced ticket holders turn toward the sets where their events were in full, raucous swing. There were snack booths with hot dogs and popcorn and kiosks selling bottles of water and soda and Paramount souvenirs. Gary Busey’s band was playing on the New York street.

When we finally reached the cavernous building where our dinner was, Jamie left me at the door. “There’s Hawk. I have to talk to him.” A peck on the cheek and he disappeared, sucked into the crowd like a genie returning to his bottle.

The soundstage was freezing so I pulled my pashmina across my shoulders and surveyed the room, watching the Great and Good of LA’s business, political, entertainment, and social worlds air-kiss and pretend to pay attention to one another while looking over each other’s shoulders in case someone more interesting or useful entered their orbit. I wandered about a bit, got a Perrier from an obsequious bartender, and pondered my seeming invisibility.

Finally, tired of my thin, Italian spike heels clacking on the cold concrete floor, I scouted what seemed to be a suitable table and sat down. Even though there was no seating chart, I knew Jamie would find me. He always had the scores of times we had done this.  I plopped my Timmy Woods Eiffel Tower evening bag on the table and waited.

A bustling woman in a sparkly lavender evening suit approached. Ignoring me, she began to spread purses, shawls, and documents at every seat around the table. When she got to me, she stopped and stared. Her expression fixed itself into a placating professional smile. I raised an eyebrow.

“Are you planning on sitting here?” she asked disingenuously.

“Yes.” I had rather thought my intentions were obvious.

“Oh. Well, we need a few more seats.”

“Hmm.”

“It’s for the agency personnel working on the campaign. We all need to sit together.” Ah. A PR flack.

I looked at her then slowly cast my eyes around the room at other tables she might choose. I returned my gaze to her face and smiled.

Realizing that I didn’t intend to move, she tried a different approach. “Wouldn’t you like to sit with your colleagues?”

“My colleagues?”

“With the other members of your agency.”

“My agency?”

She was wearying of me and my seeming obtuseness, of not getting her way, and of her plans falling apart. Her smile froze and her voice tightened. “Yes, dear, your ad agency. Which agency are you with, by the way?”

“I’m not in advertising.”

“Really? What do you do?”  The standard LA question by which someone determines just how nice to be to a stranger, in this case, an inconvenient one.

“I’m an English teacher.”

“You’re an English teacher?” she repeated shrilly. “You’re an English teacher and yet you’re here. Fifteen hundred dollars a seat and you’re here. You’re the most over-privileged English teacher I’ve ever met!”

My eyes widened and I stared at her. She blushed furiously. Apparently she realized just how obnoxious that sounded but it was too late to stop the word flow. Now she began babbling in an attempt to mitigate the damage.

I lifted my Tower bag from the table with my right hand and waved the left at her as I stood. “You know what? Forget it. Take your table even though it isn’t actually your table.”

I turned and pushed my way through the crowd until I found Jamie. He was standing with some people I knew so I joined them. It turned out that we were supposed to sit with them, anyway. He pointed out the table and I sat down again. I was really annoyed at how rude that idiotic woman had been. “So what if I don’t work for an agency?” I fumed inwardly. “At least I don’t wear purple polyester to an event attended by the President of the United States.”

Jamie finally sat down. He chugged some Diet Coke and the speeches started. A salad arrived. I picked at it. A waiter asked whether I’d like a mini-baguette. I shook my head. Jamie frowned; my appetite is legendary. As I had said, I really am the only person who eats at these things.

Jamie leaned over and whispered “What’s wrong?” in my ear.

“Oh, nothing. Just something some PR bitch said to me.”

He frowned. “Who?” he asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t know. Some porky woman in an ugly, polyester, Ross Dress for Less dress and a bad dye job.”

“Why do you care what some hack says?” he asked and kissed my cheek.

I shrugged slightly. “I don’t know. I don’t care.  It’s just . . .” My voice trailed off. The politician droned on. This night was really turning out poorly. I expected people to ignore me but no one had ever before been deliberately cruel to me.

“Ah, screw it,” Jamie said. “I know a better place for dinner. Come on.” He pulled me up.

“Where are we going?” I grabbed my evening bag and trotted after him.

“You’ll see,” he answered as we crossed the threshold of the soundstage.

We wandered back through the lot, past the revelers, the loiterers, the Hollywood hangers-on, the night shoot crews, and Gary Busey’s band. We walked back under the famous arched gates and re-crossed Melrose then retraced our steps through the tiny postwar bungalows on North Windsor Street. When we reached the car, I leaned against the door and pulled off my shoes; my feet had had enough, too.

We drove toward La Cienaga and turned right onto West Olympic. I was beginning to suspect our destination. When we eventually turned right onto Pico I was certain.

“It’s so late we ought to be able to get a decent parking spot,” I said, looking slyly at Jamie’s profile.

“You figured it out?”

“Yeah, I figured it out.”

I was right. In front of us the neon Apple Pan sign glowed. It was a great choice – it served the best burgers in LA.

It wasn’t until after we’d ordered our steakburgers with Tillamook cheddar and I’d covered my Chanel dress with one-ply paper napkins that Jamie noticed I had left my shoes in the car. So what? The place was almost empty. No one had noticed and even if they had, no one was about to question my right to be here.

The PR flack had been right: I was a lucky English teacher, but not for the reason she thought.