A Star in the Beast December 7, 2011Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, Xmas, Yule.
Tags: A Celebration in the Oaks, City Park, Fargo, winter
The rain falls in a dismal Oregon mist, a drizzle so fine my Fargo-raised son says it feels like snow. It is not. It is only in the low fifties out, and it is raining, the steady, penetrating damp of New Orleans winter.
It drives Northerners nuts. Before moving here she said: I’ll never get to where my sweaters, looking at that hope chest full of good Norwegian wool. Yes, you will, I answered. They come from the north expecting palms and balmy breezes and instead get a cold so bleak I wonder if this is how Ernest Shackelton’s men felt marooned on Elephant Island. I expect to pass a restaurant chalkboard and see Booby Soup featured.
When I lived up North the great moment of vernal excitement was when “the ice was off the lakes.” It then commenced to rain instead of snow, the icy rain of clouds off the North Pacific riding polar air masses south, on days cold enough to wear a sweater even if the sun were shining. This they called Spring. For someone from New Orleans, it was a second winter, more depressing than six months in an igloo, a winter without the pristine joy of fresh snow still a wonder to a Southern boy after a decade.
Granted that here in New Orleans we all might be swimming in Grandma’s pool come Christmas Day, but December is one of the city’s cloudiest months, and near the top for rainfall. This is the month when I remember and wonder: we almost moved to Portland, attracted by an guaranteed job with the company I worked for. My Portland-based boss and co-workers would have been pleased if we had come. I had looked at houses on the Internet, studied the tide tables of the Columbia River thinking of sailing on strongly tidal waters. Then I thought of endless drizzle and clouds. Then the Flood came, and all other plans were off. I was coming home.
I stood in a bar last Saturday, and fell into conversation with a group of Canadians. The day’s high had reached into the fifties but begun to fall outside. They all wore light fleece, the sort of thing one wears in “Spring” or in the warming house in the north. I have had this conversation two dozen times before: would we trade 50 and drizzle for a clear and windless 10 degree day, the sound of snow shows biting through the crust, the swoosh of cross-country skis?
Tuesday was another gloomy evening of drizzle. As I turned to take my shortcut through City Park along Roosevelt Mall to get to Esplanade–car heater blasting like Satan’s chimney, blessed seat warmers up on high–I was greeted with the sight of a new set of Christmas lights in the park: an avenue of blue stars with white comet tails hanging from the oaks. I took my foot off the gas and let the car slowly roll beneath them. I was struck with the wonder I felt as a child visiting the Centanni House on Canal Street, oblivious to the weather, crunching into a candy apple from the several vendors who gathered there. When Salvador “Sam” Centanni died, king of over-the-top Christmas lights Al Copeland sent a lighted Christmas wreath instead of flowers, addressed to “The real King of Christmas.”
Once the children abandon Santa the way you left the church behind years ago, Christmas is a strange season: dinner at the in-laws stretched from hours to days, an obligatory Mass where you hope no one notices that you don’t even bother to mumble anymore to the Apostles Creed. Catholics are rotten singers but there was still something about midnight mass, waiting impatiently to bellow at the end Gloria in Ecelsis Deo over the woebegon Catholic pioneers around you. There was a ballooning joy in seeing the children’s faces when they opened their presents on Chritsmas Eve but I never quite got over the idea that presents belonged to Christmas morning. For half my life Christmas Eve was a time for parties and visiting neighbors, my father and my uncle drunkenly assembling a bicycle after midnight. But the great pleasure of the season wherever I lived was the mid-winter carnival of lights.
When I first got home to Mid-City, I would drive down City Park Avenue and look at the tangle of torn wires in the oak trees, all that remained of the Celebration in the Oaks. Over the years it has slowly recovered, and the site of the chase-light candy cane tunnel over the miniature train tracks no longer leads to my slamming on the breaks at Marconi. I am sad they moved the dragon far back into the lagoons and replaced it with the swans at Wisner and City Park. That dragon blown akimbo by the storm and left in the lagoon for seasons was for me not just a a memory but a promise, that mythical creatures still have meaning, manifest themselves in our lives if only by the magic of lights strung on a wire frame.
I don’t believe in a star in the east, but I do believe in the power of a hundred thousand glowing bulbs–the CO2 soaked atmosphere be damned for a month or so–to lift the cold-soaked soul toward the heavens.