from Central Park
It was around 10 pm when I walked out of the café on the edge of Central Park and traveled the short distance to the 110th Street Subway. The platform was empty save for the five people waiting. I put on my headphones and sat down on one of the bench seats. The trains could be unpredictable at this time of night. Looking around, I noticed a homeless man shuffling along at the far end of the platform. He stopped and rummaged in one of the garbage containers. I watched him warily. He was gradually getting closer to me, approaching in ever concentric circles. A tiger stalking his prey. I locked in to the music playing in my head. I was not in the mood for being hustled tonight. The Xmas season had bought all of the hustlers out on to the streets of New York and I was tired of the constant harassment. I sensed him sit down on the bench. I stared at the floor. Out of my peripheral vision I caught a movement. He was waving his arm furiously to attract my attention. My animal instincts sensed a dangerous energy, but to fake being unaware might just make matters worse. Taking off my headphones I turned and looked at him.
A North American Christmas is a glittering affair. I am writing this in a café/bar on the northern edge of Central Park. The horse-drawn carriages are doing a brisk business. The blankets are thrown over the smiling passengers and the drivers are muffled up against the cold. We have just had the anniversary of John Lennon's death where a crowd of dedicated fans braved the freezing temperatures to gather at the Imagine Monument. Now that sad anniversary is out of the way, New Yorkers can concentrate on the Holidays. The season kicks off with the big Macy's Thanksgiving Parade on 34th Street, and ends with the Ball dropping in Times Square. By day, the Christmas tree sellers are taking over the street corners and the shoppers and tourists are packing the sidewalks. There is that Christmas spirit of excitement in the air. By night, the city is flooded by millions of dazzling lights decorating the shop fronts, churches, offices and the thousands of Christmas trees.
America needs Christmas this year. The news elsewhere has been pretty depressing.
And Americans do Christmas on a grand scale. Elaborate decorations bejewel the front stoop or the front gardens, and hundreds of icicle lights adorn nearly every house in the neighborhood.
This would all seem alien to me if my father hadn't traveled to Canada in his early twenties and fell in love with the North American Christmas.
What is the difference between here and Britain in the celebration of Christmas?
Let us go back in time. (Cue dreamy music and imagine the screen rippling.)
We are in Colonial America, and - Quelle Surprise! - the Puritans of New England disapprove of Christmas; its celebration is outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Remember, it's this lot who close the theatres, tear down the Globe and cut off the head of Charles l. (All right, may be Americans aren't so concerned about that last action.) At the same time, residents of Virginia (British) and New York (Dutch) celebrate the holiday freely. Christmas falls out of favor in the United States after the American Revolution, when it is now considered an English custom.
By the 1820s, British writers are worrying that Christmas is dying out. They imagine Tudor Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration, and efforts are made to revive the holiday. Charles Dickens' book A Christmas Carol is published in 1843, playing a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion over communal celebration and hedonistic excess. I guess that argument is still going on today.
Back to America, and during the early part of the 19th century, interest in Christmas is revived by several short stories by Washington Irving in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon and "Old Christmas", which depicts harmonious warm-hearted holiday traditions Irving claims to have observed in England. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol also becomes hugely popular in the States and today is the most performed Christmas show in the country. It is Dickens more than anyone who is responsible for our modern version of this holiday. As the American writer David Sedaris says: "Before Dickens, most people thought of Christmas as a religious holiday. Dickens took the Christ out of Christmas!"
Christmas is declared a U.S. federal holiday in 1870.
In early Victorian England, Father Christmas is a Post-Reformation English equivalent of Santa Claus. He is portrayed as a giant, wearing a scarlet or green fur-lined robe and a crown of holly, ivy or mistletoe. He carries a Yule log and a bowl of punch. He distributes gifts on Christmas Eve. The "Ghost of Christmas Present" in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, 1843, is Father Christmas.
The big symbol of Christmas in America is Santa Claus. It is a variation of a Dutch folk tale based on the historical figure Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, who gave gifts on the eve of his feast day of December 6. He becomes associated with Christmas in 19th century America, and is gradually renamed Santa Claus or Saint Nick. In 1812, Washington Irving writes of Saint Nicholas "riding over the tops of the trees, in that selfsame waggon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children." The popular image of Santa Claus is created by the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902), who draws a new image annually, beginning in 1863. By the 1880s, Nast's Santa has evolved into the form we now recognize. The image is standardized by advertisers in the 1920s, most famously by the Coca Cola Company. The Christmas Tree is bought over and made popular by, once again, the German Immigrants from whose country it originated.
After the war, Britain's Christmases were by necessity frugal affairs, so it took a bit of time for the excesses of the American Christmas to cross the Atlantic. However, like the American Halloween, it is gradually and inevitably being assimilated into the UK culture. Christmas here in the States is a battle between religious holiday and excessive consumerism.
There is a new film out called The Nativity which depicts the story of Christ's birth. The young sixteen-year-old actress playing the Virgin Mary became pregnant just as the film was being publicized to coincide with its Rome opening. I want to give it a new title: The Naiveté or Immaculate Misconception!
For me Christmas is dangerously retrospective. I am not religious, but I do see it as a celebration of faith.
Faith was demonstrated to me very strongly some years ago. This is a true story.
Yes, let's cue that music and ripple the screen again.
An actor is waiting for his wife to come back from rehearsals. She has the lead in a new tour. He is going over lines for Ibsen's Hedda Gabler which is being rehearsing the following week. The phone rings. He is surprised to hear the voice of the father of his step-son's girlfriend. The father tells him he has some bad news.
The actor is not surprised. Bad news has always surrounded his step-son. His grown-up step-son is a troubled soul. He has dabbled in drugs, but now his big problem is alcohol. It triggers off a huge destructive personality change and memories of old nightmarish LSD trips. The actor and his wife were concerned, but their worries have been eased in the last few months as the new girlfriend has seemingly brought about a stabilization of the drinking.
The girlfriend's father explains that his daughter had walked out on the son the previous night after the son had got dunk and became abusive. The father says that, for some unknown reason, he had a bad feeling and drove over to the son's flat to check up on him. There was no answer, so he let himself in with his daughter's keys. In the bedroom he found the son. He was hanging by a belt from the post of his loft bed. The father pulled him down. The son was motionless. When the ambulance arrived they said he was in a coma and he was rushed to the hospital. The father says the doctors aren't saying too much to him as he's not family, but the first indications are not encouraging.
The actor thanks the father and says he will keep him in touch with the son's progress. Looking at his watch, he sees that it is an hour before his wife finishes rehearsals. His brother has dropped by for a visit, so he enlists his help. They drive into the city to meet her. The wife's first reaction is joy that her husband has come to pick her up. His brother takes over the driving whilst the actor sits with his wife in the back seat and breaks the terrible news. They arrive at the hospital and are immediately met by a doctor. He tells them that the son is in a coma and his condition is critical. He has no idea how long he had been hanging from the post. He believes he is unlikely to awake, and even if he does, he is very probably going to be in a vegetative state. The wife shakes her head and announces she is staying at the hospital. The doctor takes the husband to one side and explains that the wife must eventually be made to realize the reality of the situation. Her son is not going to live and if he did he would come back severely mentally impaired and in a wheelchair. The husband thanks the doctor for his honesty.
Later that night he relays the doctor's prognosis of the son's condition. The wife reacts angrily, saying "no" over and over. She fiercely tells her husband that her son is going to be fine. Over the next two nights the son's condition remains critical. He lies in a deep coma. A bed is made up for the mother in a room on the floor above. From the window she can look down toward the room in which her son lies motionless. She spends hours by his bedside, constantly talking to him, holding his lifeless hand. On the third night, at 4 am, she awakes with a start. She has an overwhelming surge of energy and the knowledge that something is happening to her son. She looks out of the window. The lights are on in her son's hospital room. She rushes down the stairs. When she enters the room her son's eyes are open. When he sees her, he smiles.
Over the next week, the son's condition improves remarkably. All the time, the mother is by his side talking about any subject she can think of. At the end of the week, the son is discharged. He walks out, thoroughly detoxed and looking a thousand times better than before his suicide attempt. The doctor tells the father with wonderment in his voice that they have had several hanging attempts come into the hospital over the previous two years. The patients either died or were severely mentally impaired and crippled. The son is the first to walk out. The father retells this to the wife.
"Doctors don't know everything, especially what goes on between a mother and son. Oh ye of little faith!"
Let's come forward in time to October this year.
I am sitting in a place called The Tea Lounge. It's a very cool laid back café in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It is basically one huge room filled with big comfortable chairs and sofas. In one corner a counter serves coffee, tea and small snacks and salads. In the evening it opens up into a small bar. The only daylight comes through the big double doorway, which gives the place a dark cozy mole-like feeling. Not ideal for Summer, but perfect for a wet and slightly chilly autumnal day. Enhancing the autumnal feel is the orange and brown color scheme on the walls and the smooth jazz playing over the sound system. The people here are all young professionals in their twenties and thirties. A few are mothers or fathers with their preschool children. I sip my earl grey tea and in this moment, I am content. It is good to be back on the Slope!
The trip to Canada was worth the effort. For my relationship and for the audition for the Shaw Festival. The train journey is even longer at the moment because of work they are doing on the tracks. It took about 16 hours from New York to Toronto. Long Distance Relationships are pretty unsatisfying and difficult, but that seems to have been the nature of our relationship from the beginning. Heidi is now in her second year of university. I envy her in many ways. One of her courses this term is the History of English Literature. One day I sat in on one of her lectures. It was about The Canterbury Tales, which of course Aquila are doing as one of their shows. The lecturer was an enthusiastic lady in her sixties. I listened to her speaking with the Middle English accent and was intrigued at the definite Scandinavian lilt to the vowels and intonation. Aquila's Canterbury Tales is more likely to have Long Island and London intonations, with many fart jokes thrown in for good measure.
On my first morning in Toronto I had my audition for the Shaw Festival Theatre. I had to prepare two monologues. I haven't had to do that since...well, since my last audition for the Shaw three years ago. The brief was that one of them had to be from the era in which Shaw lived. This is the same guideline for the programme of plays for the Shaw Season. I performed a monologue from Jekyll & Hyde which allowed me explain the interesting concept behind the show (read Rhythm of the Gods), and a speech from Oleanna. Whilst I was performing my party piece, they read my résumé and accompanying letter. When I had finished I was relieved to see that my auditioners were smiling. This was a very different reaction from the one I received three years ago. It seems that my commitment to marrying a Canadian had made a difference. We sat and chatted happily for five minutes. I'm not sure they were looking for anyone specific, but, you never know...
So there I was... on the corner of Lexington and 57th, the 31st Floor, in this penthouse corner office with an amazing panoramic view of New York and the East River. The New Vic and Newcastle-under-Lyme seemed a long way a way. New York on a Friday afternoon was just a cauldron of money-making energy. On top of the World, Ma! How I came to be there was a series of steps.
Step one: I saw an ad on Craig's List. This is the main online resource for all apartment letting, subletting and room sharing in the New York City area. It also has a jobs section; handy really, because that is exactly what I'm pursuing. The apartment hunt has begun too as I'm homeless in three weeks, but things tend to be last minute in this city. So a job is first on the list. Most of the jobs are not of the acting kind, but there is a small creative section where they do advertise. I wouldn't usually hold out much hope of anything worthwhile, but three years ago I applied for a job to a company who were looking for a British War Correspondent... or an actor who could play one. Much to my surprise they saw me and gave me the job. Two days later I was flown out to Colorado to shoot a top secret in-house training film for NATO. What I neglected to tell them at the time was that I HATE any kind of loud noise or explosion. Since the whole thing was set in a Theatre of War, this was something of a handicap...but I am getting away from the point. The point being that I received a great paycheck for this traumatic experience. So I suppose things have been pretty good recently as I have had no reason to look at Craig's List since that time. Now, however, it's back to what I call Black & White world. And so to...
Step 2: I go to an audition for one day of filming. The only description is a man in his forties. The audition goes well, I think. I give them American and English accents. They ask me to lose my temper. I call them "Cunts." This seems to go down well because that evening...
Step Three: I receive the call that I have the job. Next day I travel to the office of the big chief of an online trading company and ride the elevator up to the 31st Floor to the penthouse corner office. He has a TV built into the wall, a big oak desk and a picture of himself, his wife, and children posing with the Rolling Stones, who seem to be personal friends. The advertising company employing me is working on a pitch to the online trading company. They have been asked to come up with a number of ideas. My particular scenario is playing a customer who has come to discuss his stocks with his unhelpful brokers - so very different from our online trading company, of course - and is patronized. In slow motion he loses his temper. I therefore spent the afternoon calling the actor in front of me every Anglo-Saxon swear word I could think of. At one point my language was so strong that the producer began to worry that we would upset the rest of the workers in the offices where we were shooting - not that were that many working on this Friday afternoon. It was wonderful drama therapy for me and a couple of hundred bucks for my trouble which will pay the rent this week.
Alright, off to bed. I'm going to the first night of a new play in the West Village with my agent Honey on Sunday night. It's my first socializing for nearly two weeks. The rest has been cereal, pasta with pesto, water, touch typing practice, Microsoft Office, auditioning and scanning the horizon for jobs and apartments. It'll be exciting to have a little color for an evening. I think I'll wear a suit... to complement my newfound cheekbones.
More ripples across the screen. We travel forward to December.
... to the contrary. Not well.
I've been sick. It started on Saturday night. I have moved to Queens. The same area where the police on the Friday night had fired 50 rounds into a car filled with four unarmed black men and killed a groom on the eve of his wedding.
Yes, there's a different atmosphere to Queens.
Your walk from the subway takes you through Greece and outdoor cafés with overhead heaters, on through Little Egypt and smoke-filled Hookah bars, to a dark apartment in which I am subletting an equally dark room from my good friends Erica and David and their two cats. I don't know if they're trying to tell me something but the cat litter is placed right outside my door! For those in the UK, if Park Slope was Hempstead, then Queens is Peckham!
I had escaped to meet a friend in the city. I had a sore throat which was just starting to get annoying, so I took a couple of painkillers and later washed them down with a pint of Guinness. Later that night I had planned to go over to the Slope to attend my friend David Dunford's annual seven course gourmet meal. It goes on through the night. The first course usually arrives around 10 pm, if you're lucky. To kill time, I went and saw the film of The History Boys. It has a good script, nice performances, but was shot with the quality of a 1970s porn movie.
It became obvious during the movie that I wasn't going to Dave's Dinner. I became feverish, my head was aching, my throat was sore and I felt sick. I made it through the movie and then struggled home on the subway, through a nightmarish nighttime Greek and Little Egypt world. I said a quick hello to my landlords and excused myself, grabbing a bowl from the kitchen. I then proceeded to throw up through the night.
I tried to speed the process up by watching the Ashes on the Internet. For American and Canadian readers, the Ashes is a cricket Test Match series featuring England playing Australia. The fixture has over a hundred years of history and is always played with intense competition. Except this year; it seems that the England cricket team had decided that competing was just - well - too intense. They played unbelievably badly. So watching it didn't help the way I was feeling.
I finally got to sleep at 8 the following morning. Sunday was dire, but I did sleep ten hours on Sunday night. I felt a lot better on Monday and had to go out today for an audition. I was weak and still had a sore throat which also gave me painful earache - really, is this interesting? I don't think it is the done thing to go into illness details - You know what it's like when you've been ill, everything is seen through a grey haze. Today it just seemed the world was closing in and I was fighting with my back to the wall. So to get myself in shape for the audition I walked through Central Park, which despite the grey filter was still ridiculously romantic, and after the audition I went to St. Patrick's and lit a candle. Things worked because I have a callback for tomorrow.
Iago in Salt Lake City. I nearly fell over in the audition because the director actually spoke to me. They never speak to you here.
"What's your take on Iago?"
Initially startled, I then processed his voice and realized he was English. It all began to make sense. I muttered some feeble answer like: "that's a deep question, but you have to know why he does what he does - no one else need know, but you must."
He asked me if I had ever been in the play. I said I had, but it hadn't been wholly satisfactory as I had been filling in for someone (I thought it politic to say so) and then dangerously told them how I incorporated Beethoven's Fifth Symphony into Iago's "What's he then that says I play the villain?" soliloquy, but prefaced the description by saying it was probably a reaction to being shoehorned into the role.
Anyway we'll see how tomorrow goes. It's the same run length as Oleanna. Something my agent Honey could live with. What she might have more trouble living with is that Aquila has asked me to come and talk with them about their plans for the New Year on Friday. She hates me being out of the city for any length of time.
The upshot is I fought back a little today, but I wasn't feeling brave and the city seemed overwhelming.
Last night I was hoping for a good night's sleep, but I slept fitfully, waking up nearly every hour with different worry dreams. The one I remember is being attacked in the dark by three vicious big black dogs, then somebody threw the light switch and they turned out to be three small black puppies. Go figure, Mr. Freud.
Back home now and just about to venture out to say hello to my landlords who I was surprised hadn't painted a red cross over the bedroom door and gone past singing "Bring out your dead!"
In an email, my mother wrote - wistfully I thought - that perhaps it might have been better if my brother or I had turned out to be gay. I talked to my brother very candidly about the gay thing.
"Yeah, but the thought of someone putting a willie up my bottom."
"But Rob, it doesn't have to be that way, you could be alpha male and be the one doing the penetrating."
"But doesn't it have to be reciprocal?"
To which of course the only reply can be.
"I'll be buggered if I do that."
One of the main added attractions of doing Oleanna in the UK in the summer was that it put me in close proximity to my ailing father. In March of last year, after years of strokes, failing health, gradual immobility and periods of hospitalization, he was admitted to a nursing home. The doctor's prognosis was not encouraging. He was diagnosed with dementia and Parkinson's Disease, amongst many other things. He certainly seemed to be in another world for the first few months.
Eventually my indefatigable stepmother Pat demanded that he be seen by a specialist. The specialist said my father didn't have Parkinson's and took him off the prescribed drugs. The effect was immediate. On my first visit there I held a conversation with him without any problem - well - unless you call the old woman across the room singing to herself a problem, or the old, highly intelligent gentleman who now felt compelled to sit on the floor and drag himself across the home's lounge. On my first visit, after being with my father for over an hour, I said goodbye and told him he had to get himself out of there. I implored him to make an effort. He had to show them that he was capable on his own. This would be especially difficult not only because of his immobility, but also because the word dementia was on his record. They already thought he was an idiot.
My visits to him continued over the summer. They were painful and poignant, but I was encouraged by the twinkle in his eyes and to see that his skin had lost the deathly whiteness.
Christmas I will always associate with my father. He was a changed man over Christmas.
My father was not an easy man. He was over six foot tall, strict and terrifying, and physical punishment was the normal way matters were dealt with in our childhood. He was also very careful with his money. He had been a war child and had endured the rationing that followed in the 1940s and 1950s.
However at Christmas, all that changed. His Canadian experience of Xmas had a lasting impact on him. He would begin shopping for presents in September. The Christmas tree would be enormous and festooned with at least five sets of lights and laden down with decorations. Santa would bring a sack of toys and the presents under the tree took up half the room. There were huge amounts of food, sweets, Christmas cake, and my stepmother Pat's delicious mince pies. Late at night my father would sit in his chair and stare at the tree, listening to Christmas music. In his hand he would hold a Canadian Whiskey with Ginger Ale, topped with ice and a slice of orange. As he stared at the flashing lights, he would smile, his eyes filling up with tears. It was the one time of the year I glimpsed the boy that my father had once been. Perhaps he glimpsed it too.
So let us come up to date. The final ripple of the screen. To a week ago.
I held the phone in disbelief. My stepmother had just told me the news. My father's condition had improved so radically that he was going home! There would a team of carers to help Pat look after him through the day, and if she needed a break he would be admitted to the nursing home whilst she was away. He couldn't walk very well, but he could get himself up on his feet and could move a little. She handed the phone to my father. He sounded as he sounded ten years earlier; animated and mischievous. He was excited to hear that I was going to Canada for Christmas.
"It's God's Own Country," he said dreamily. He talked about his long ago visit there in great detail. He cracked jokes. He asked about my life, showing concern for my well-being.
"Never mind that, how do you feel about being back home?" I asked excitedly.
My father sighed. There was a pause.
"I'm out of jail."
I could only listen and smile. My God! He got himself back.
I will think of him this Christmas whilst I am in the beautiful icy wilderness of Northern Ontario. I know he would enjoy the snow. He already told me that all I needed to combat the -15 to -40 temperatures was a pair of ear-muffs. I will think of him looking at his tree with his Christmas music playing, and a glass of Rye and Dry in hand.
Yes, faith has a strong power and miracles don't just happen on 34th Street.
The homeless man's face was pinched and sharp. His features looked Scandinavian. He was young: not yet 30 I guessed. His eyes were golden and contained little life. No one was home.
"What do you think...?"
I kept eye contact. "About what?"
His eyes flickered. A burning ember in his left eye momentarily sparked, fizzled and died.
"What do you think they would pay in my country... to have my head cut off?"
I took a deep breath in through my nose and cast an invisible barrier around myself. "Man, I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about."
The man sucked in his cheeks and muttered to himself. I clamped my headphones into my ears. This conversation was over. I returned resolutely to staring at the ground. I had been asked so many times recently for money I didn't have.
Except he hadn't asked.
I glanced up the platform. The homeless man's worldly possessions were stacked in a corner in two big bags. A rat the size of a small kitten rummaged through the man's belongings on the platform. I looked back to him. Perhaps I should warn him, but he was now standing, muttering to himself. He had become agitated. Every so often he would glance sideways in my direction. It was time to move. I slung my backpack over my shoulders and headed down the platform. As if on cue, four more homeless people, faces ravaged by alcohol and drugs, stumbled past me like vampires newly awoken from their black tombs. With relief, I heard a train. The man had now noticed the rat and was ambling towards it. One of the vampires shouted out to him. He didn't hear for the noise was deafening. The train thundered into the station with a metallic roar. I boarded quickly and sat down, exhausted.
I was on my way out of the city. Flying through the tunnels of Manhattan. Fifth Avenue now above, with its super-rich stores of Christmas bedazzlements and finery. But always below, was the city's night-time world of desperation.
I might be away from the color world, but the black & white world overwhelmed me. I had to go north.
Now on the train to Canada and Northern Ontario. I looked to the skies. With any luck by the time I arrived there would be a great dumping of fresh snow on the hills and lakes. I needed the white and the cold.
I was going to throw myself into the snow. Immerse myself in it. Stick my head in it!
The Black of the city absorbs, but the whiteness of snow reflects.
And I need this time for reflection.
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one
(from Imagine by John Lennon)