22 December, 2012

Tidings of Comfort and Schadenfreude

You might never know the Yuletide was upon us. No one here trims a tree, hangs mistletoe, lights candles, or carols merrily. No one wraps presents. No one strings blinky lights. Except, in prison, the spirit of the season glows from our TVs — endless faux-festive commercials, news broadcasts of Christmas tree lightings, and Miracle on 34th Street marathons. The joy wafts over the airwaves, to our radios, in cycles of “Winter Wonderland” covers and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” A few candies, chips, and single-serving freeze-dried coffee packets come in the treat bags distributed by the prison’s staff about one week before Christmas, and these are the closest we prisoners come to happy holidays.

Tensions tend to run higher here, beginning around Thanksgiving, escalating around year’s end. In the free world, families are gathering together (or planning to), coalescing in spirited reunions that are off-limits to those of us locked away. For the convicted, there will be no candied yams or prickly kisses from matriarchs, and they’re unhappy about this fact. Unwilling or unable to talk about the seasonal depression brought about by isolation, many let their frustrations build, or seek succor in mood-altering substances. I imagine the drug trade always picks up, this time of year. Certainly there are fewer silent nights, as I see more arguments, more fights, and animosity so thick in the air you can taste it. It tastes nothing like egg nog.

I have gorgeous memories of childhood Christmases with my parents. We celebrated in the way my mother had grown up with, having our family dinner and opening our gifts to one another on the evening of the twenty-fourth. Every year we had a live tree, tall and hardy, festooned with silver tinsel, handmade German ornaments, and real candles. Brightly wrapped presents ringed the tree’s blanket-covered root ball, and the thick scent of pine filled our candlelit living room. Mum, being such a traditionalist, played an LP of German carols as my father stoked logs in the fireplace. Right before we surrounded the tree to unwrap gifts, she’d open a tin of Lebkuchen that had been air-mailed to us by family, then slice a stollen bought from our local German market the week before. When both sides of the record played through and all the treats were eaten, my father put on a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and I danced like a drunk ballerino, leaping and kicking until I fell down on the carpet, warm, full, and happy.

As an adult, though, I’ve been content to have my Christmas dinner alongside the Jewish families and Middle Eastern med students at a Mongolian barbecue place. Christmas just doesn’t interest me as it did when I was little. I’ve even been accused — perhaps not without due cause — of humbuggery.

But in a mildly ironic way, being locked away means I have reason to be glad of my disenchantment. While the hearts of my fellow inmates are being gnawed at by every Christmastime jingle and “Ho, ho, ho!” they hear, feeling for perhaps the first time all year the chilly distance between them and the people whose lives they are no longer an immediate part of, I suffer only mild annoyance at what I consider so much dutiful, forced, fake cheer.

All the reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life will not get me to finally watch that treacly mess of a movie. A new rendition of “Silent Night” will not move me any more than the old ones do. Another candy cane, in a plastic sack full of salty snacks and cheap sweets, won’t do anything for me but make my breath minty-fresh for a half hour. Unlike most around me, this is the one time of year when I feel almost protected, sheltered from smarmy sentiment and out-of-control consumerism, not overwhelmed by the perpetual sense of missing out. And since I’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

18 December, 2012

Front Desk Cupid

I still think of them often, the couple from the hotel. Although I can’t remember his name and never learned hers, I like to think I made their night extra special, working all around them, unobtrusively as oxygen, essential and unseen. If they’re still together and think of that night at all, these thirteen years later, if I did everything right, if their engagement was every bit the event it was supposed to be, then they might not even recognize what follows as being about them.

Another Friday at the hotel, and our forecast was for a full house. I took my post at the front desk, beside my friend and coworker Madeline, to review reservations. Through the windows across the marble lobby loomed a gray December late-afternoon. Another type of forecast called for that, and worse, as the evening drew on. Having just relieved the day shift to go tromping through the dampness and chill, Madeline’s round cheeks blushed bright pink. She frowned at her computer terminal, an amplification of her usual edge of surliness, upset at having to be solicitous and fake professionalism instead of being at home, sunken into her old sofa, a Camel alight in one hand, an open bottle of icy Woodchuck in the other, punishingly loud punk rock stabbing her ears — her preferred way to relax on a foul day. I worried that anyone daring enough to approach her during that shift ran the risk of being greeted with an upthrust middle finger.

Not that I was exactly brimming with smiles and sunshine. It was only the middle of my work week and I already felt drained, unenthusiastic about working the desk, on what was certain to be a harrying shift, as revelers, undaunted by the temperature or stinging precipitation, planned their hot time at the nightclubs and bars up the street, only as an afterthought seeking a warm bed within stumbling distance of the city’s most popular entertainment district.

I was encoding key cards in preparation for the hotel’s Priority Club check-ins when a chill washed over Madeline and me. A young man entered through the front doors, stylishly underdressed for the weather, and came to my side of the desk. He was a walk-in, looking for a room with a king- or queen-sized bed — preferrably one with a view of something other than the parking lot. On any weeknight, when our occupancy was spotty with corporate travelers, conventioneers, and the occasional touring band, this wouldn’t have been such a tall order. But Fridays and Saturdays were another story altogether, as we overbooked by as much as four percent as a matter of course.

“I’ll see what I can do for you, sir,” I told him. A few keystrokes pointed me to our only unassigned room: a third-floor affair overlooking the low rooftops of the residential neighborhood to the south. As I described the accommodations to the man, twenty-five or -six years old at most — just a few years my senior — he creased his forehead like someone three times our age.

“See, the thing is,” he began, and my back stiffened, a conditioned response to bargaining by would-be guests, “I’m proposing to my girlfriend tonight.”

My spine relaxed. This was one claim I had not expected.

“We’re going to dinner, then to Harry’s for drinks, up the street, there. Afterwards, I want to come here and propose in the room. I thought a nice view — the Christmas lights on the trees and everything — would be kind of, um, romantic.”

I rubbed my fingertips together behind my back. I did not consider romance to be my forte. Sure, I was good at the little spontaneous gestures, being prone to the gifting of flowers, jewelry, stuffed animals, chocolate, to say nothing of the random adventures on which I’d been known to lead dates — the kind that can lead to lots of kissing in strange places — but planning a grand romantic sweep, not knowing how the object of my affections might react, moment by moment, to any of the innumerable intermediate phases of said plan, seemed too far against the odds to be successful. I weighed the options, then said, “Let me check something else for you.”

The room with the king-sized bed at the northeast corner of the hotel’s top floor, room 609, had exactly the view the young man was hoping to get. A few more keystrokes changed its status to vacant as I reassigned a random reservation to the third floor. It felt as though I’d done something tremendously helpful. Tamping down my self-satisfaction, I handed him a key card and said, “Enjoy your evening, sir, and good luck.”

“Oh man, thanks!” the guest said, clapping his hands as if a prayer had been answered. “Now, I’ve just got one more thing I’ve gotta ask: is there any way to have someone put a bottle of champagne in the room, and a couple glasses?”

Ours was a small hotel, fewer than 150 rooms, without a concierge on staff to carry out such requests, but I could not let the lovesick man down. I took the three ten-dollar bills he proffered. “Not to worry,” I told him. “I’ll see to it myself.”

Madeline waited until he’d existed the lobby, back out to the bone-chilling grayness from which he’d come, before she said, “Well, that sure was weird.”

“What was?” I asked. “We do all sorts of stuff for people.”

“Yeah, but that guy didn’t just want a wake-up call, Byron. You totally fell for his bullshit. What happened to your being the Dark Cliffs Upon Which the Waves of Hope Break? He probably doesn’t even have a girlfriend.” She wore a feral grin. Madeline was poking fun at my reputation for being rigid and unapologetic when it came to turning people away. “You’re going soft on me, buddy. Are you gonna go up and fluff their pillows, too? Maybe give them foot rubs?”

While my friend cracked wise, I was preoccupied by the task to which I’d been entrusted. Those two people were getting engaged. One of the most monumental experiences of their lives had just been placed partly in my hands. I had to begin my preparations right away.

“You got the desk for an hour, Maddy?” I asked, already fingering my car keys and heading for the office cloakroom. If she protested, I didn’t hear.

The thirty dollars given to me by the guest would barely cover a bottle of Korbel and a pair of plastic flutes. At the liquor store, I searched for anything better in the same price range. They can’t toast with cheap champagne, I thought, puzzling over how to carry out my mission on the tight budget I’d been given. Scanning the expanse of green bottles on the racks, the solution popped into my mind like an uncorking. I reached for a small bottle of Moët & Chandon, making up the difference, at the register, with several bills from my own wallet.

After pulling cautiously out of the parking lot of the liquor store, I lost traction on several sheets of ice slicking the streets, but kept the car between the lines all the way to the supermarket, nearly two miles distant. Strawberries being long out of season, I settled for a pound of cherries. I paid with my debit card. The cashier’s heavy-lidded boredom was all wrong for the occasion; I wanted to tell her, “Look alive, woman! Don’t you know these are for a couple’s engagement?” but reminded myself that my concerns are not necessarily shared by others. I took the plastic sack from her, sighing into my scarf as the store doors slid apart and a buffeting wind snatched greedily at my purchase.

My apartment was blocks away. Even set on high, the windshield wipers could scarcely grant a clear view of the road ahead. Headlights from oncoming cars glazed my vision as, almost by feel, I navigated through palpable gloom to reach my back door.

Understandably curious as to why I was home, hours before my usual lunch break, bustling around the kitchen, still darkly bundled in my long coat, my roommate asked, “What the hell are you doing?”

She’d walked in on me tying a ribbon around a cellophaned crystal bowl of cherries. That much was obvious. Rather than go into whys and wherefores, I said, “It’s for a guest’s room. He’s proposing to his girlfriend tonight.”

“Um, okay. So why are you using your own crystal?”

Having no answer that might satisfy, I went to the pantry and collected two champagne flutes from a box on the top shelf.

My roommate shuffled back to her computer, where I assumed she’d been having an IM conversation or three — her favorite online pastime. From the other room, she called out, “I’ll just message everybody, then, tell them you’ve lost your mind. Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of your cat while you’re in the asylum.”

Back at the hotel only slightly later than intended, having breezed past Madeline at the front desk, encoded a key card, and marched straight into an available elevator, I drew back the curtains on the twinkle of white Christmas lights along the uphill street room 609 overlooked. The room looked as much like a love nest as my hour and twenty minutes’ preparation could make it. An ice bucket offering good champagne sat on the coffee table, alongside two sparkling crystal flutes and a couple of handmade chocolate truffles from a local chocolatier I adored (but more recently from my refrigerator). The bowl of luscious, deep red cherries graced the bed. I stopped shy of setting out an arrangement of candles only because of the building’s hypersensitive smoke detectors.

Two steps back, to survey, first from the sofa, then from the door, told me I had done well.

“Welcome back, Lover Boy,” quipped Madeline, once I finally returned, without outerwear, to the desk. “You sure took long enough.”

As anticipated, the weather did little to keep away the hardcore Friday-night partiers. We were busy enough that I never noticed the young man come through the lobby with his fiancée. I clocked out without learning how his proposal went.

There was no note of thanks awaiting me at the desk the next day, nor did anyone record anything relevant in the shift log. I called housekeeping within minutes of clocking in; they reported finding no stemware, nor a crystal bowl, in the room, but said an ice bucket and empty bottle were on the floor beside the bed.

A standing ovation greeted me when I entered the office. Madeline (she of the ordinarily profound cynicism) had arrived at work early to gush to the GM, front office manager, sales staff, and everyone on the desk crew about my intrepidity in going above and beyond the call of duty… in the name of love. The little group of my coworkers had been waiting, eager to clap me on the back, smile, and speak words of high praise for what I’d done. When they quieted down at last, the front office manager said, “I never knew you were such a hopeless romantic.”

And really, until that moment, neither did I.

10 December, 2012

Mr. T and Me

Mr. T’s fourth birthday was in September, and the gift he got in the mail from his godfather was a sticker activity book. In seeking the right present, I was acutely aware of his new obsession with all things Star Wars (now that he regards Disney/Pixar’s Cars as kid stuff); however, I found it tough to shop for a child-sized lightsaber from prison. The sticker book, despite its dearths of Darths Vader, Sidious, or Maul, was reported by my friend, Mr. T’s mother, as a perfect gift — something he can do alone, quietly, for a span of time roughly equivalent to Mom’s ideal nap length. My gift being well received is a victory I chalk up as my second successful significant act in my role as a godfather. It is a role I take very, very seriously.

My first successful act, I believe, was holding him. Never having held a baby before, I was nervous. His parents had brought Mr. T all the way across the state for a visit, and the last thing I wanted to do was drop him or break him or something. Not quite a year old and wriggly, he didn’t make it easy on me at first, but as I read to him The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the German translation of which I remember from my own childhood, and talked as encouragingly as I could to him about his questionable motor skills (“Don’t worry,” I said, when he fussed at my not surrendering the utensil to his grasp, “people won’t have to spoon applesauce into your mouth all your life”), he came around. Mr. T left that visit without incurring apparent physical or mental trauma, and I left it with a smile on my face.

This interaction is kind of a big deal because, historically, I have felt terribly awkward around, and, in all truthfulness, with the very idea of, children. My discomfort started when I was a child myself, averse to noise, befuddled by impetuousness, and uninterested in the group activities that developmental specialists say are so important. Unlikely, then, as my nomination for a Kids Choice Award might seem, children have delighted in my attentions ever since I became a teenager. I don’t know why this is, but I have a few simple theories. The first is that I talk to them, to tweens and infants alike, just as I talk to everyone else. My voice doesn’t ascend two octaves when I come in the presence of a newborn, I don’t do baby-talk, and I won’t dumb down my conversation for anyone. Kids seem to like this, that I treat them as equals. Second, like cats, whom studies show are drawn to the very humans who pay them the least attention, children may perceive my comparative indifference to their antics as puzzling: Every other grown-up pays attention to me as soon as I come near, but that man doesn’t care — how interesting! Third, kids may appreciate that I’m easy to make fun of.

A former girlfriend of mine had an eleven-year-old sister who took a preteen’s uniquely sadistic delight in mocking my old-mannish ways and overall unhipness. (“Did you just say ‘neat?’ Who says ‘neat?’ God, Byron, what are you, like, seventy? ‘That’s really spiffy-keen neat-o.’ Ha!”) She and her cadre of friends, collectively called “the Little Girls” by my girlfriend and me, got no end of pleasure from my annoyance at their nickname for me, “Unkie Byron,” and went to great lengths to try publicly embarrassing me, especially on occasions I was recruited by someone or other’s mother to drive the troublesome troupe to the mall. Whatever points I won for coolness, during those outings, were always deducted as soon as we returned to my car.

Turning the ignition key, I took note of dashboard indicators. “Who doesn’t have a seat belt on?”

“Why do we need seat belts,” one of the Little Girls would groan from the back, ‘’if you’re supposedly such a good driver?”

“Because the road is full of idiots, and I don’t want to get Little Girls’ viscera all over me if one of them crashes into us while he’s picking his nose.”

“What’s viscera?”

“Viscera are internal organs. So keep your intestines to yourself and buckle up.”

A chorus of giggles. “Okey-dokey, Unkie Byron.”

And so on.

There’s that cliché about kids, how they grow up so quickly that one often won’t recognize the changes until the kids aren’t kids anymore, until they’re grown up and away. It won’t be long before my godson, Mr. T, will be old enough to dislike that I call him Mr. T, rather than his real, full name. And of course he’s far too young to get the flattering ironic association it makes between him — gentle and contemplative — and the loudmouthed one-time professional wrestler and A-Team star. But that’s a minor concern. I worry more about being limited in what I can do with him, and for him, as he gets older, if I remain imprisoned. I want to be able to take him on fun, educational day trips, on tours of neat (neat!) places like bookstores, museums, train yards, farms, and factories, and to be a boon to his parents, if and when they want a break, by looking after the little guy for a bit. I want to, but I realize I may never be able to, which is why I take my responsibility as his godfather so seriously — it might take extra effort for me to be good at it.

Fortunately, Mr. T and I are well suited to one another, with him evidencing enough nascent geekitude — a precocious love of reading, a prodigious curiosity, a thing for spaceships — that we can easily relate. Being amply versed in Star Wars lore made my third significant godfatherly success, carrying on a bidirectional telephone conversation with the young Padawan for the first time, as casual as the dress code at Jabba the Hutt’s palace. I’m not a natural phone-talker, nor are four-year-olds renowned for their telephonic chops. Mr. T begged for the phone, though.

“I wanna talk to Byron,” I heard him say, in the background.

His mother laughed. “What would you even say?”

But the distance did nothing to diminish our rapport, which was as strong as ever, as I barraged him with questions about his Jedi Halloween costume and his favorite aspects of the Lucas-verse, while trying not to rebuke his childish preference for Han Solo over Boba Fett. As is probably inevitable whenever one generation extends a hand to welcome the next, our first long-distance exchange did provide one humbling moment for me when he broke the news of Disney’s newly begun production of Episode VII. He’s four! How could he know such a thing before I did, even with the Internet at his wee fingers? Clearly the Force is strong with this one, and I’ve got my duties cut out for me.