I’ve spent a somewhat embarrassingly disproportionate share of my free time this holiday season watching those endless made-for-Hallmark Christmas movies. Good God—the scripts come off like bad first drafts banged out over a weekend, though somebody is probably making a handsome living writing them. (Any chance you’re hiring, Hallmark?) There are a few variations on the formula, but most play out something like this:
A work-obsessed city gal—typically a “marketing exec,” though clearly zero research has been conducted as to what precisely that entails—finds herself stranded in provincial New England, British Columbia, at the heart of the holiday season (kindly disregard the lush summer foliage in the background of every wide shot), where an earnest Bill-Pullman-in-While You Were Sleeping clone, far too manly and pragmatic to have ever participated in something as frivolous as an acting class, teaches our heroine, often with the aide of a precocious (and fortuitously motherless) child, the true meaning of Christmas—read: small-town livin’ in the real America. Twirling gape-mouthed in an obscenely production-designed town square—brought to you by Balsam Hill!—blanketed in a freshly fallen silent shroud of SnowCel, our newly enlightened protagonist declares, “This is what Christmas is supposed to look like!”
And that got me thinking: What should Christmas look like? I mean, if each of us could put the holiday season on a postcard to serve as the perfect representation of what it evokes in our hearts, what would yours depict?
That sure as hell don’t look like any Christmas I’ve ever known! Maybe something quaint and rustic, if a tad more realistic:
That’s kinda nice; I could spend the holidays there quite happily! However, it’s still an idealized country Christmas a city kid like myself has never known outside the movies. This is where I grew up:
I’ve even been to the tree-lighting ceremony; I braved the tourist crush one December evening after class in freshman year of college. (Let’s just say that never-repeated experience made the rush-hour subways seem comfortably roomy by comparison.) And years before that, we spent every Christmas Eve visiting Santa at the grand (and now sadly defunct) B. Altman’s department store on Fifth Avenue before heading uptown for dinner at Cockeyed Clams (also kaput) on 94th Street and Third Avenue. It was the kind of floor-sawdusted restaurant with newsprint-stock menus—not remotely fancy but perfect in every way. That New York was part of my annual Christmas experience was something I took completely for granted; Manhattan, after all, was my backyard.
And yet neither the tree at Rockefeller Center nor the legendary window displays at B. Altman’s epitomize “that special feeling” Christmastime inspires in me. Rather, this does:
This is Broadway at West 231st Street in Kingsbridge, a business district and major public-transportation hub in the northwestern corner of the Bronx. I spent more time down there as a kid than I can quantify: in the red-leather warmth of Ehring’s Tavern with my father (they’re both history now, too); at the long-gone Dale movie theater (where my pals and I snuck into that showing of the R-rated Major League back in ’89, you’ll recall); waiting for the bus or subway to take me in one direction or the other. Everyone in that sector of the Bronx passes through this intersection now and again; it can’t be avoided.
One time, Dad left the car running at the curb as he popped into Optimo for cigarettes—a lifelong New Yorker, you’d have thought he’d known better—and, no surprise, it was stolen by the time he came out thirty seconds later! I wasn’t there when this happened, but I have no doubt he shrugged it off and spent the next several hours across the street in Ehring’s—and anyone who knew him would be hard-pressed to argue with that. Man, I loved borough living.
A FAIRY TALE OF NEW YORK
This stretch of Kingsbridge is always bustling with activity, but never so much as at Christmastime, when holiday lighting is suspended between the lampposts that line 231st Street between Broadway and Ewen Park, known locally as Suicide Hill for its precipitously steep pitch and dangerously short terminal outrun that makes sledding there a thrilling if life-threatening pleasure. Hefty bags were what passed for Flexible Flyers back in the good ol’ days (what’s called turning a lack of lemons, to quote Stephen Colbert, into a lack of lemonade), though on rare occasion we’d acquire ourselves the sleigh-riding Holy Grail: the “Bronx bobsled”—a cardboard refrigerator box that could accommodate multiple riders! Once, as four of us zoomed down the hill together à la Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I sprained my foot slamming into a curbside tree; I limped for two weeks. Never much of a student, the episode was my first real-world lesson in the principle of momentum equals mass times velocity.
Crossing Broadway after exiting the 1 train, the view beneath the steel girders of the el tracks this time of year, for anyone who cares to take note, is downright hallucinatory: Flurries drift through gaps in the crossties overhead, the snowfall dyed amber by the phosphorescence of the city’s high-pressure sodium streetlights, creating a feeling of cold and warmth concurrently, and in equal measure. This watermarked stock photo (of Brooklyn, not the Bronx) doesn’t quite do what I describe justice, and I thusly refused to pay the licensing fee, but it’ll give you a rough idea:
Waiting at the bus stop—or, as was more often the case, hoofing my way up the street when I didn’t have the fare—I’d stargaze at the prewar buildings, their brickwork blackened by decades of bus exhaust, the windows and fire escapes strung with dollar-store lights. Nobody up there was having a Home Alone Christmas, but it was cheerful, and festive. In some respects, it was even Dickensian: This was how working-class people, in working-class New York neighborhoods, celebrated the holidays. It wasn’t particularly distinguished or extravagant, but it was warm and welcoming nonetheless. It always made me happy to be home again. This is what Christmas is supposed to look like—at least for me.
TRUE TALES OF AMERICAN LIFE
As an author of the macabre whose stories are for the most part set in the gloom of autumn and winter, I admire and find inspiration in the idyllic Christmas visions of Thomas Kinkade and Norman Rockwell, same as I do the Gothic horror of Washington Irving and Bram Stoker and Anne Rice and Neil Gaiman. But the life experiences of those artists aren’t my experiences; my fiction only has value and a singular voice if it reflects the world as I see it.
Stephen King tells stories of writers in New England because that’s a reality he can speak to honestly; same goes for John Hughes with respect to postwar Midwestern suburbia, and Woody Allen of neurotic Jewish New Yorkers, and Raymond Chandler of the mean streets of 1930s Los Angeles. All of those writers stayed, for the most part, within a specific milieu not because it was commercially safe, necessarily, but because they knew about it, and had something meaningful to express about those cultures, those very American experiences.
So, when I think about my particular picture-postcard Christmas, I reminded of how my upbringing has shaped my own artistic worldview. Escape from Rikers Island, my forthcoming urban fantasy novel, is about two men from the lower-middle-class subway stop on the socioeconomic spectrum—a cop raised in Bainbridge and a gangbanger brought up in Bed–Stuy—who’ve spent all their Christmases in apartments like the ones on 231st Street, because that’s a world I know, and love, and can speak to. And, to be certain, it is one rich with creative inspiration: For it was in Poe Park on East Kingsbridge Road that DeWitt Clinton graduates Bob Kane and Bill Finger developed one of pop culture’s most enduring, recognizable icons—Batman, a personal favorite of mine, who showed me how to use my imagination as only comic-book superheroes can, and even taught me how to read.
Of all the action figures of Christmas Past I had the pleasure of playing with—the He-Mans and G.I. Joes, the Star Wars and Super Powers collections—the aforementioned fictional cop and gangbanger are my favorites, because the world they inhabit is the one I inhabit, too. Augmented with reanimated monsters, of course, but why should those lurk exclusively in the shadowy corridors of European castles and New England mansions, and on the pristine streets of white upper-middle-class suburbia in the cinema of Wes Craven and John Carpenter? The blue-collar boroughs have their stories to tell, too—their horrors and their heroes. So, I’m going to stick around awhile and chronicle them—the ones I’ve lived and dreamed, and have plenty to say about—starting with Escape from Rikers Island, which is my kind of winter’s tale, set in my part of the real America.
Because, hell, somebody ought to, seeing how they don’t make Hallmark movies about finding the true meaning of Christmas in friggin’ Kingsbridge. Nobody thinks the glow of low-rent neon signage or the rattling of el-train tracks is especially romantic or yuletide-inspiring; none of that ever made the cover of the Christmas edition of The Saturday Evening Post, so far as I know. Rockwell may have never seen beauty in that sort of thing, but I do. “It’s my corner, after all,” observed Auggie Wren, in Paul Auster’s Smoke, of the Park Slope intersection where his cigar shop was situated, and that he dutifully photographed every morning at precisely eight o’clock for over four thousand straight days. “It’s just one little part of the world, but things happen there, too, just like everywhere else. It’s a record of my little spot.”