Being the gung-ho type—early-rising and full-steam ahead—I sprang out of bed one morning last week knowing exactly what I had to do. There was a friend to help, one last present to buy, some Christmas cards to mail, and a little grocery shopping. Also, a lunch/interview with a potential employer, videos to drop off at the library, and a bank stop—I would need more cash for the groceries. A long list, but I could do it. I had a plan. And at the end I would celebrate my well-orchestrated day with a glass of wine. If only I could have conducted the world to play along with me.

My friend lives in Mira Mesa, a long drive from my home in Mission Valley. She was housebound with influenza, and I had offered to mail her package so it arrived by Christmas Eve. When I knocked on her door she had not finished wrapping. Something was missing, and she was turning her house upside down to find it. But seeing me check my watch, she wrapped the package without the missing item, and I drove back towards Mission Valley and to the post office nearest my home.

The Linda Vista post office at Christmas week is like a soup kitchen during a blizzard. The line was long and at a standstill. Not one for patience, I decided to return later.

My sister-in-law smokes cigars, and prefers the Arturo Fuente Short Stories. I had researched the internet and found two tobacconists that carried them, one in Clairemont, not far from the post office. But I arrived too early; the shop opened at ten. The other tobacconist was in Chula Vista, and I reached in my pocket for my cell phone to call for hours. I’d forgotten the phone at home. In my gung-ho mode, however, I charged ahead to Chula Vista.

“Abrimos a las 11,” the door sign read, and I hopped back in the car and returned to the Linda Vista post office, where I found the line had grown longer. At least it was moving. At least, that is, until one of the two clerks took her break. Then the couple in front of me produced partially addressed boxes, and the lone clerk had to look up zip codes. They also had a bundle of cards that had to be weighed individually. After fifty-five minutes I finally handed over my friend’s package, only to realize that I had forgotten my Christmas cards at home, probably next to my cell phone.

By now I had just minutes to get to Mission Valley for the lunch/interview. And a warning light as bright as a star said my car was out of gas. Fortunately, there was a station on the way. I got in line. At the pump my ATM card was rejected, and inside there was another line. The satellites were clogged with all the transactions, the attendant told us. But my card was accepted. “Cash back?” he asked. Saving me the trip to the bank? I thought. “Yes!” I blurted out so enthusiastically others in line smiled.

Noon-time Mission Valley traffic was bumper-to-bumper from one light to the next. Christmas shoppers. My potential employer will have lost patience, I fretted, and I will have lost the job. But he was waiting, reading a newspaper, wearing a Santa’s hat. He cut off my profuse apologies with a wave of the hand. “It’s a tough time of year to be punctual,” he said. And after lunch he shared his secret for holiday peace. “The best plan this week is to have no plan.”

After the lunch/interview I dashed home to fetch my Christmas cards and my cell phone. There was a message from my friend in Mira Mesa. She had found the rest of her gift, and would I mind coming back and taking it to the post office. I still had to mail my Christmas cards, so I said sure. Videos, cigars, groceries and now post office redux. It was going to be tight. I had to hurry.

Backing out, I didn’t see my neighbor and almost ran over him. “What’s the rush? It’s Christmas,” he asked light-heartedly. “Precisely,” I answered. “And I’m on a Christmas mission.” I rattled off the itinerary I was trying to keep. “Here. Give me your videos,” he said. “I’m on my way to the library.” I could have hugged him.

The list was getting shorter. The plan was coming back under control. The cigar store had plenty of Arturo Fuente Short Stories. The drive to the Hillcrest grocery store was unimpeded. But lines to the cashiers were long. I began to fidget with impatience. The woman in front of me fidgeted too, and we shared our still-to-do lists.

“Cards to mail?” she asked. “That’s an easy one. There’s a post office nearby, you know. Corner of Cleveland and Richmond.”

Cards finally mailed, I stepped outside the post office and took a deep breath of late afternoon air. By now the sun was setting and people were getting off work, going home or going shopping, and Hillcrest traffic was thickening like pudding. But my list was complete. I felt exalted. I wanted to stand on top of my car and sing Handel’s Messiah. Time to go home and have a glass of wine.

I was in the car humming carols when the phone rang. “When will you be here?” It was my sick friend. I had completely forgotten.

Hillcrest to Mira Mesa. Mission Valley lay between. And as I was about to get on 163 I saw a glacier of headlights into the valley and up the other side. Fortunately, I knew a secret shortcut. It would take some grand-prix driving, and this gung ho, early-riser could do it. I turned west on Washington, right on Fourth, and left on Montecito to Bachman Place, my secret shortcut. But my secret was not so secret. There was a quagmire of cars funneling into Bachman, and I found myself in the middle.

Twenty minutes later I reached Hotel Circle South, looped under Interstate 8 to Hotel Circle North, took a sharp right on Fashion Valley Road, and right into a galaxy of brake lights. Cars were two-deep entering the mall parking lot. I gripped the steering wheel, and practiced patience. An eternity later I turned left on Friars Road, raced to Via Las Cumbres, then uphill to Linda Vista Road. Driving fast along Linda Vista I saw the post office parking lot, still packed.

At my friend’s I grabbed the parcel and headed back to Linda Vista. When I arrived, the post office parking lot was empty. But lights were on and I saw clerks inside, some wearing Santa hats, and I could hear music. I pounded on the door. A clerk saw me, looked puzzled, and waved for me to come in. The door was unlocked.

“You’re still open?” I asked incredulously.

“Until 5:30 tonight, Sir.” I set the package on the counter. The music was Handel’s Messiah.

“You look like you are going to cry, Sir. It’s Christmas.”

Comments

bluenwhitegokart Dec. 31, 2009 @ 8:39 a.m.

The best laid plans...and all that. I was a liberal arts major in college, mainly because I'm a) not very well organized, b) not well disciplined (the military notwithstanding), and c) not all that interested in the effort required to be organized and disciplined. I admire people who can lay out the kind of itinerary that you laid out, and can execute to same. Those are generally drab and boring people who don't express themselves as well as you do.

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CuddleFish Jan. 1, 2010 @ 11:11 a.m.

This essay lays out the basic blueprint of my daily life: Good intentions, badly executed plans. I also have that cell phone to answer, those messages to listen to when I get home, the house to clean, the cats to take care of, meals for myself and my son, oh and my grandmother in the nursing home, besides committee meetings and issues with the neighbors. I'm sure I'm forgetting things, but the list keeps changing, anyway, and really, who wants to remember it all.

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