Well, really, at this time of year, you can't really avoid it -- the carols, and the trimmings, TV commercials and the tinsel. I decorated our tree yesterday, and just managed to brush against the edge of nostalgia, as I wondered where all these old ornaments came from, anyway? (I even pressed into use some old lengths of forlorn garland, that have a kind of stale smell if you pay close attention) Across the street, where our neighbors have at least one daughter who still believes in Santa, a brightly-lit tree has been up for a month. Someone came by a few days ago, and attached a big floppy red bow to the gas lamp out in front of our house. Ho ho ho.
So of course, I was thinking of Christmas this morning, on my way home from the doctor's office. Ho ho ho. I wouldn't have been all that surprised if the lab technician who took my blood -- the only medical reason for the trip -- had been wearing a floppy red flannel hat, some jingly bells, and a fake cotton beard. Jaundiced as I seem to be of late, I tend to notice the dissonance others also mention, as they're eying another roll of wrapping paper, or angling for that packaging tape that's on sale: why aren't people nicer to each other, at this particular time of year? After all, it's supposed to be about a lonely family and one little baby, lying on a bed of straw. As the carols say.
But... how might this Seasonal Niceness manifest itself, in a culture much more mobile and, at least from a technological standpoint, inarguably more complex that what comprised by 'going about your business' in December, year 0, CE?
Today itself, for instance. While on my way to aforementioned medical appointment, and feeling out an alternate approach to Jersey City, because my usual route has come to resemble the bombed-out ruins of some unfortunate city in the Middle East, leaving just the one lane open to approach both the Holland Tunnel and the one local exit leading to my doctor's office, I found myself behind a teeny, mousy brown car on Newark's Ferry St. Said vehicle's driver seemingly incapable of depressing the mousy brown gas pedal just a thought more aggressively. During Newark's version of 'rush hour', on a two-lane street in the most densely populated portion of the United States of America. Where driving is something of a blood sport. No one need to guess which direction my blood pressure was heading.
Mousy vehicle cautiously poked its way down a long, long, long street, pausing at every intersection (red light? Stop sign? Dead animal? Inchoate inner yearning? Apparently, anything would instigate this respectful pause), while other vehicles nosed their way across and past and in front of, said mousiness. While, directly behind this exemplar of vehicular timidity, the little sanity I can ordinarily claim had virtually boiled out of my ears. I Have a Doctor's Appointment, for God's Sake! And instead of clipping along Ferry St. at a reasonable pace (aren't I clever having thought of this), I'm traveling at roughly six miles per hour, while some land snails, visiting from Cuba, sail along smoothly on the sidewalk up ahead, laughing at me and leaving me far in their slimy wake.
Finally I found myself freed, released the doom of following this vehicular equivalent of a visually-impaired arthritic nonagenarian, tentatively tapping to find a safe way across pavement that might blow up at any moment. But, as I gave inward thanks for my release, and watched with gratitude as this little brown thing trundled off to the south, I also realized that I had no idea where I was. On a rainy day, with no clues available from the sun. Half an hour before my appointment. I hate to be late.
Thanks to the fact that nearly every square yard of this part of New Jersey is paved, and the fact that I knew I had to cross at least one river, I managed to navigate myself to my destination. And not only was I was on time, I was actually early. But, as I waited for my blood pressure to subside, I couldn't help reflecting -- would it have been so much to ask, for the mouse driver to... speed up a little? That's what I would have done. Or was this seeming cautiousness actually this person's equivalent of the Christmas Spirit -- giving vehicular preference to everyone else on the road -- except, of course, the driver in back -- who was, in this case, me? What, in this context, would Jesus have done? I was still mulling this over, as I held the bandaid on my new little blood-test boo-boo, wished everyone a Merry Christmas, and tried to figure out how I was going to get back home again. .
What would Jesus have done?
Compared with my inbound trek (I know those snails are still laughing at me), getting out of Jersey City was a snap. I'm still a little stunned to realize that I know all the roads there like the back of my age-spotted hand. I even let a couple of drivers make their left turns ahead of me, because after all, I'm in no hurry now, it's the holidays, and who cares if an enormous fifteen-ton tow-truck has hogged the lane I need, so I can get where I'm going? Season's greetings. It's all good.
I hit my Christmas snag, at the very end of my brief sprint along 280, where East Orange begins. Off to the side, blocking the right-hand lane of a steep, two-lane exit ramp, sat an dingy-looking, decrepit white delivery truck. The truck's left front wheel was jutting out at an unhealthy angle, and there was white powder all over the asphalt. A dark-featured man, in grey parka almost indistinguishable from the color of the van, stood there forlornly. As I approached, he waved me away from the back of his truck, as though I couldn't see the blinking lights. Or that crumpled wheel. Or whatever it was, all over the roadway. Of course, I swerved further left that strictly necessary, to let him know I saw him, and then continued on my way, just minutes now from the gas light with the red bow on it, and my nice comfy home, with a tree full of stale tinsel.
At about the second light past the exit, it struck me -- The Christmas thing, and What Would Jesus Do? Behind me -- about half a mile back by now -- was a fellow human being, trapped and alone with his totally incapacitated vehicle. Standing there by himself, in the light rain that was now falling, and waving dispiritedly, as one car after another sped past with no apparent concern. WWJD? And here I am, I realized, with yards and yards of... stretchy red jersey fabric lying in the back of the van. (Best not to ask why) Just one of those pieces of cloth, I decided, could -- maybe, hang from the back of the truck? Stand in for a flag, while this man waits for... whoever might come to give him meaningful help? I didn't know. We would think of something, this driver and me. What I did know, in my heart, was that the baby Jesus would be crying in his straw bed, if I didn't at least try to do what little I could.
So. Where I always turn left, I turned right, hoping that, once I'd driven back toward the man in distress, I would find just the one legal parking space. And, miraculously, I did, right next to a weed-filled empty lot, a convenience store with large men hanging around in front, and just across the street from burned-out pet store. Among other picturesque things. Making a mental note of these landmarks, I squeezed my van into place, selected what I hoped would be a useful length of this tomato-hued cloth, and set out on my mission of mercy.
I knew I'd seen the disabled truck's flashing yellow warning lights up ahead, but it seemed further than I thought. I wasn't sure there would be a sidewalk, or any other safe-ish place for pedestrianism, with my fellow New Jerseyans speeding blindly toward me, transfixed by the fact that only x hours remained before the holiday itself, and blinded by visions of gift certificates dancing in their heads. I did learn, though, on my mission of mercy, that Queen Anne's lace grows wild in this part of the state, needing a crack in the sidewalk as an opportunity to luxuriate. Ragweed thrives too, unsurprisingly, plus some tall, prickly things with sturdy branches that resist all efforts to pass by. To judge by the flattened evidence, I learned that I could buy an amount of rum in convenient recyclable plastic bottles. I saw CD's shattered into the most interesting shapes. The learning of which, however, distracted me enough so that I passed my turn-off.
This red cloth certainly was bulky. And now I had to walk two long blocks back, across busy, tortured intersections (wouldn't be surprised to see a cemetery devoted solely to victims of traffic patterns here), before I would be finally going in the right direction. And then, I would hand off this modest, yet helpful gift (maybe we could tear it in two, and it could drape over the back of the truck, and be a warning flag? Brilliant!), a totally unlooked-for gift, a testament to the brotherhood of humanity. How this man would smile in disbelief, that someone had come back to see to his needs. How he would embroider this tale, which this poor man would certainly relate over and over again, whenever he saw his family next. Whichever continent they might live on. How do you say 'stretch jersey' in Arabic?
Today, of course, I wonder if Jesus was paying any attention at all to the fact that, as I was out walking in the rain, getting myself all sweaty, compromising my newly-bandaged boo-boo, and lugging around what now seemed like my own weight in red cloth, the supposedly helpless truck driver was using his cell phone to call a tow truck? Because, when I finally glimpsed the broken truck again, down at the bottom of the ramp, there were two men standing there instead of one, and as I picked up my pace, they both climbed into the cab of what I now realized was a tow truck, and... that both the tow truck, and the broken truck, were now moving. Toward me. Slowly but surely driving past me, with the waving man, now a passenger, looking out at me with a pitying glance. Me standing there on the narrow pavement, a big old white guy, wearing a bright blue jacket that used to be a bunch of soda bottles, and carrying under his arm, for God only knows what reason, a big wad of red cloth.
I tried to laugh, and tell myself that this was a fortunate development, but really I just felt incredibly stupid. And now it was raining harder. And I had to walk all the way back to my own car. The one without the dislocated front wheel. But I couldn't find it. How many burned-out pet stores can one town have? And why are there so many vans, exactly the same color as mine, parked along a street where, to judge by the ample evidence, there seem to have been three recent tornados and a small flood? With me, a lone post-disaster visitor, walking around like some elderly, slightly gimpy toreador-in-training, trailing red temptingly in my wake...
Of course I found the van -- it was such a relief when the key clicker set off the backup lights -- and my book bag was still lying there -- temptation itself -- in plain sight on the front seat, because of course I'd forgotten to lock the car as I went off on my mission of mercy. I gratefully slid into the seat, started the engine and headed off in the completely, totally, all-but irretrievably wrong direction. Wondering, all the while, during the next hour of what should have been a five-minute ride, what Jesus would have done.
Tomorrow, I'm going to do a little research, and look into the possibilities of a holiday observing the under-rated event of Jesus Driving the Merchants from the Temple. Call it, perhaps, the Festival of Holy Terror? I could really get behind that one.
© 2011 Walter Zimmerman