4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

San Diego Reader writers alone at Christmas

At the drive-in, driving up I-5, at boyfriend's in Kansas City, with broken leg in New Zealand, sick in OB, sad in Amsterdam

Christmas Jerk

I managed to avoid being homeless on Christmas Eve 1979, but just barely. Unemployed since that summer, I found a cheap flophouse on 12th and Island where 70 bucks a month got me a room so small that I had to open the door to get out of bed. It was my first holiday in San Diego, 3000 miles from my New England hometown.

Christmas Eve, I got it in my head that I wanted to sneak into a theater to see Steve Martin’s new movie, The Jerk, which was playing within bicycling range at the Campus Drive-In near SDSU.

I wasn’t new to sneaking into drive-ins, either hiding in cars or jumping the fence to meet up with paid customers already parked inside. But for some reason, it never occurred to me that sneaking into a drive-in without something to drive in might get me noticed.

Stashing my bike in the bushes and getting over the chain-link fence on one side of the lot was easy enough. My plan was to find an unused pole surrounded by cars. Then, I could sit on the ground and use the speaker pole as a backrest and the cars for camouflage. But there were only a handful of cars on the lot, all spaced too far apart.

I found the speaker post that seemed furthest from view of the snack bar and projection booth and sat down to enjoy the movie, which was just starting as I breached the gate (always the ideal cue, as everyone’s attention is on the screen). I knew I could easily be spotted, but I was hoping a holiday evening would find the theater staff as sparsely populated as the parking lot.

I unhooked a paper bag from my belt and took out the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I hoped would keep my belly filled until the next day’s all-you-can-eat holiday buffet at Beasley’s Friendly Corner, a deceptively named dive of the damned next to my hotel.

Unfortunately, Steve Martin’s character had barely learned shit from Shinola when I saw a kid around the same age as me, in his late teens, deliberately hiking his way across the cement bumps from the snack bar toward me. He looked as unhappy as I felt.

“Do you have a ticket, sir?” I shrugged my shoulders, no use lying.

“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave.”

I was already trying to recall what was playing at the next drive-in, a little further down the Boulevard, as I put my sandwich back in the bag. Maybe their staff was a little less vigilant.

But then the kid kind of looked past me, over my shoulder, even though there was nothing behind me but parking lot and fence. His eyes didn’t seem to focus on anything specific, he was just kind of looking. And not saying anything. Like he was thinking about something, maybe remembering something.

I probably muttered “Sorry” as I stood up and dusted gravel off my butt, prepared for eviction via the inevitable march of shame past the ticket booth, where someone else with a job would likely cuss me out too.

“You know what?” the kid said, his eyes focusing on me again. “Enjoy the movie. Merry Christmas!” And with that, he was heading back toward the snack bar before I could do much more than say, “Wow, thanks, you too!”

I’m not sure what made the kid change his mind, and I hope he didn’t get in trouble. It was kind of a Christmas Carol moment.

Maybe I just looked particularly pitiful, all alone on Christmas Eve, sitting on the cold cement with my PB&J. But I didn’t feel pitiful. I felt great! That’s how much I love drive-ins. And what a good time I ended up having that night, enjoying my gift of a free movie. A great free movie. This isn’t at all a sad memory for me.

Luckily, in the years since then, I haven’t had to make a holiday meal of peanut butter and jelly. But I do keep The Jerk racked with the Christmas DVDs.

— Jay Allen Sanford

A bachelor’s Christmas

When they asked why I hadn’t made it home for Christmas, I blamed the military, which wasn’t a total fabrication. The Marine Corps had sent my parents to Japan that year. That put a 24-hour travel day between “home for Christmas” and where my 25-year-old self lived: in a shared three-bedroom east of Hollywood.

“You fly west, over the international date line,” I regaled my hosts, regarding that flight to Japan. “So your plane takes off Wednesday night, lands Friday morning, and you never set foot on Thursday.” The Andersons had all made the trip in the middle of my high school years, and that loophole in the time zone was famous in our household for allowing my mom to technically skip right over her 40th birthday.

I shared the anecdote in a stylish Mission Hills home, as we each raised a glass to Christmas Eve, and to the unblinking understanding this was exactly the one night a year you’re kind of the jerk if you don’t take in the traveling stranger on your doorstep. This family was genuine and gracious, made great conversation, and couldn’t have been more welcoming.

“Damn it,” I thought. I was afraid this would happen.

It was convenient to scapegoat the military for not going home, but it’s closer to the truth to say that I found myself alone on Christmas by choice. I couldn’t rightly have been called a Grinch at that point, but I was glad to avoid the stress of the holidays. Plus, my college ideals were still fresh, which meant that on the one hand I decried the crass commercialism that corrupted the true spirit of the season, and on the other, I had a week off work and wanted to party.

That other hand is how I wound up in San Diego. My roommates had gone home for the holidays, and I heard a few friends would be gathering down this way. With a futon in the covered bed of my pickup, I ventured south for the weekend without much of a plan. Only, I didn’t fully comprehend how much area this county covers. With my pals scattered all across it, I took a couple extra days to get to everyone.

Worst case, I knew I could slip out of town early Christmas Eve, avoiding any awkward invitations to stay and crash a family holiday. But one more friend reached out at the last minute. She was visiting from the East Coast, and finally had time to get together tonight after all. I could pick her up at her parents’ Mission Hills house, one of those mid-century jobs that sit flush to the street, with a basement level built into the canyon.

When I arrived, she suggested hanging out in the basement instead. Her sister and a few friends joined us for drinks. Then their parents began sharing nicer bottles of wine than most twenty-somethings deserve. In the midst of one of those bottles opening, I mentioned I should stop drinking if I hoped to make the drive home to L.A.

But that wouldn’t do. They couldn’t abandon a holiday orphan to the streets. The wine was poured, the compact agreed to. We would all drink with ardor, and I would fall asleep on the rec room couch with my mouth hanging open. They were, as I said, lovely people, with generous hearts.

Which occurred to me first thing upon waking, just as morning light began to reach the back corners of the house. Already I could hear giddy steps overhead as the family prepared a Christmas morning. Any moment now, they would come downstairs with jolly songs to rouse me. I could imagine the extra place setting at their breakfast table, and the charitable smiles as they presented me a stocking, hastily stuffed with small, scavenged gifts, so I wouldn’t feel left out. And I would stand there, feeling like an interloper: the guy who drank too much but woke up in time for Christmas ham.

When they descended the stairs to call me in for breakfast and togetherness, they found an empty couch and a pile of blankets. I’d crept up the back staircase, out through the garage, and was already making record time cruising up an empty freeway. In under two hours, I was experiencing the lone, lazy Christmas celebration I’d envisioned. For the first time in my adult life, I had a house all to myself, and thus an entire, perfect day I could waste on watching old movies, eating junk food, playing music too loud, and napping on a whim. Or, as I would come to call it during most of my bachelor years: Christmas tradition.

— Ian Anderson

A pregnant, homesick Christmas

When I was 19, I found out I was pregnant. I had decided to stay in Lawrence, the sleepy Kansas college town where I lived, rather than go home after the school year ended. I wanted to spend a leisurely summer free of responsibility. Pregnancy was not part of that plan. My dad had been recently diagnosed with cancer. A tumor the size of a golf ball had taken up residency in his brain. I avoided the heavy sadness that blanketed my childhood home by staying away. If I didn’t have to see him deteriorate, maybe it wasn’t happening.

“I’m going to stay here through the summer,” I told my mom nonchalantly over the phone. There was silence on her end. She was seething.

I met Aaron in June. I was sitting on my porch blaring Janis Joplin and drinking $2 wine straight from the bottle with my friend Kylie.

“Aaron!” Kylie shouted, waving frantically when she noticed him across the street. He made his way toward us. He had shaggy blond hair, blueish green eyes, and a bloody scab running the length of one leg. He was beautiful.

“Mountain biking accident,” he said with a shrug when he noticed me looking at it.

From that moment on, we were inseparable. We dated all summer until my dad’s health declined and I was compelled to move back home. It was then that I noticed I was throwing up as much as he was, and I wasn’t doing chemo.

I was two months pregnant when I finally broke the news to my parents. They were less than pleased.

It was decided that Aaron would fly out to Chicago and meet my family for Thanksgiving. Christmas we would spend with his before we moved in together.

Aaron flew in two days before Thanksgiving. While running an errand, my dad lost his temper — something he rarely did. The grocery store was flooded with last-minute shoppers. We circled the lot and found only one open spot. A sign in front of it read, “reserved for pregnant women.” “That’s a definite perk to my condition!”I blurted. The whole car erupted into laughter. Dad turned to Aaron and barked, “There is nothing funny about a 19-year-old pregnant girl!”

Later that night, Dad pulled me aside and said, “He’s not Catholic. That’s a real problem!”

I shrugged. He let out a deep sigh.

Before he left, Aaron told my dad he was going to marry me.

“In a Catholic church, I hope,” was Dad’s response.

For Christmas, I flew to Kansas. It was my turn to meet the family. We stayed at Aaron’s mom’s and stepdad’s house. She bubbled with excitement over the unborn baby. “I can’t wait!” she gushed, something I wished my parents would say. She was pretty and blonde. She wore sweater sets and slacks. We stayed in the guest bedroom. It overlooked a golf course. The bed was so tall I needed a step stool to get into it. Everything was some form of vanilla — the walls, the furniture, even their fluffy dog.

A few days before Christmas, Aaron’s mom drove us to KC Barbecue. “If you love Aaron, you have to love KC Barbecue,” she said. They ordered piles of meat. It was served with a loaf of white bread. Aaron and his brothers devoured everything. I was horrified when his 15-year-old brother turned to me, said, “You don’t need napkins when you’ve got bread,” then wiped his hands on a slice before popping it into his mouth.

Christmas Eve, we attended a Presbyterian church service. Aaron sang so loudly that his wildly out-of-tune voice rose above the others. My family did not sing at church. We left that sort of thing to the choir.

Christmas morning when I woke, Aaron was already downstairs. I was still in my pajamas. The rest of the family were dressed, showered, and had made their beds. They were sitting around the Christmas tree, ready to exchange gifts.

Back home, my family always made a big deal of Christmas. Our stockings were overfilled with loot. We had more presents than we deserved — a ridiculous amount that I always felt guilty about.

Aaron’s family was sensible. The stockings at their house were empty, ornamental. They took turns opening gifts, prying tape and paper off neatly, nothing like the savage way my family ripped apart wrapping jobs. Aaron received socks, underwear, and a flannel from Lands End. Aaron’s mom bought me earrings, turquoise with a silver feather. She was embarrassed when she noticed that my ears weren’t pierced. I was equally embarrassed when she said, “I just figured... most girls’ ears are pierced.”

Afterward, each scrap of wrapping paper was thrown away. It was nothing like the after Christmas hurricane I was accustomed to. It was peaceful. Zen-like.

At that very moment, my house was probably filled with people. My baby cousin had undoubtedly left a trail of uneaten Christmas cookies in her wake — one behind the curtains, one on my dad’s chair, another under the Christmas tree. They’d be talking too loud. Gaelic Park’s Irish Hour would be blaring in the background, the sound of fiddles filling the house. Eventually, my brother would drag out his guitar. Soon they’d all be singing “South Side Irish.” There would be a big mess. It would not be cleaned up until over the weekend.

At Aaron’s mom’s house, I retired upstairs and sat on the oversized guest bed. I was desperately homesick. Was this what my life was going to be like now — quiet and sensible?

Aaron came up not long after. “I have a surprise for you!” His eyes gleamed, “We are going on an adventure!”

We drove two hours before Aaron finally turned down a snow-covered road. We parked in front of an old barn.

A man wearing a heavy jacket greeted us. We followed him to a fenced off portion of the yard. Inside were brown and yellow Labrador retriever puppies.

“Pick the one you want,” he said

I looked at Aaron quizzically.

“You heard him,” he prompted, “whichever one you want.”

“To keep?” I was confused.

“You said you pictured us as one of those outdoorsy families with a cute kid and a Labrador. I can’t promise a cute kid, but I can promise a cute dog.”

I knew in that moment that things were going to be different. Maybe the holidays would not look like what either of us were accustomed to, but we would have our own traditions now. I reached down and picked a roly-poly ball of brown fluff.

“That one?” the man asked. “Are you sure? That one’s the runt.”

“I’m sure,” I nodded. She was so tiny and perfect, the way I imagined our baby would be. And, Baby Andrew was perfect. He was also sort of a runt. Born five weeks early and five pounds even, nearly two months to the day later.

On the drive home to Aaron’s mom’s house I confessed, “I love you, but I don’t think I’ll ever love KC barbecue.”

“That’s okay,” he replied. “I don’t think I’ll ever become a Catholic.”

— Siobhan Braun

A broken leg for Christmas

It was a hot, end-of-vacation Friday. Summertime. Christmas was near. Cicadas zinging. This was New Zealand, where I grew up. I was eight. My brother was at a sea cadet camp. My parents were away at a town 40 miles north. It wasn’t a big deal. They were journalists. They were always off somewhere. Just not usually the two of them gone, together. But they said they had this important interview. It didn’t bother me. I was just bored.

“Come to the Catholic courts and let me beat you again,” said my best friend Richard on the phone.

So I grabbed my racquet, jumped on my bike, and headed off for the Catholic courts, a mile down Muritai Road. I got there before Richard. Started volleying against the volley board. I was a kid who was always late, so the fact that “Herb,” as we called him, arrived after me was a delicious moment, which I celebrated by trying to hit him with my shots as he rode between me and the board. He kept riding the gauntlet, faster and faster.

Then I didn’t see him for a moment. I looked to my right and here he came, tearing up in the opposite direction. He was trying to zip past, just behind me, to give me a scare. But I saw him and took a couple of steps back, so I could still aim at him.

Shouldn’t have done that. He tried to counter my move. We collided. When I started to get up, I couldn’t. My right lower leg was folded in two.

“Sure it’s okay,” said Richard.

Our friend Eric Bowen rode up.

“But it’s folded over.”

“Probably just twisted,” said Richard. “Think you can ride home?”

By now pain was starting to jam in. Especially when I tried to straighten it.

“Eric, give him a dub home on your bike. I’ll bring his.”

“Should someone call a doctor or something?”

That’s me. I can’t stop looking at my bent leg. And it’s really starting to hurt.

That dub, sitting on the bar of Eric’s bike, with my dangling leg juddering every time we hit a bump, was a doozy. “Sorry,” he kept saying.

At my place, on Tawa Street, the garage doors were locked. That meant mum and dad weren’t back yet. Eric found an apple box, where I could sit outside and lean against the doors with my broken leg dangling free, and wait for my parents. Somebody, Richard, I think — he was there by now with my bike and racquet — got Mrs. Hewitt, about the only neighbor home this time of day, to call for an ambulance. She came out and said the nearest ambulance base was 10 miles away, and they would be an hour or so because they were on another job.

So everybody hung around awkwardly, but in the end, remembered other things they had to do.

I just sat on the applebox, feeling the pain start to take over.

“I’ve gotta go. Teatime. Mum will kill me,” said Herb. “I’m sure it’s not broken.”

I looked down at my leg. I could see one fractured end underneath, trying to bust through the skin.

“See ya,” I said.

“Me too,” said Eric. But he didn’t look at me as he picked up his bike.

“Thanks for the dub,” I said.

I felt heroic, like Robin Alone, a comic book character who had to survive by hunting and swinging through trees. I thought about all the times I had been up alone in the miles of bush behind our house, slipping and climbing in my own Robin Alone fantasy world. Yet this had happened on a tennis court.

After what felt like hours, the ambulance came and loaded me up. God it hurt. Lorna Hewitt sat beside me. As we swung around the bays, I saw out of the back window my parents, zooming past us, homeward-bound in their white Zephyr droptop. They seemed to be sitting close together. Mom’s head was on dad’s shoulder.

“It’s my parents! Honk your horn!” I yelled, but they were already in the next bay.

“Darling!” said my mom a couple of hours later, after they had reset my leg and wrapped me in plaster from foot to crotch. “Why did you have to pick today of all days? Are we bad parents? Are you punishing us? This is too, too subliminal. Your father and I have so little time together, away from you boys.”

Actually, she didn’t say that. But that’s what it felt like.

— Bill Manson

OB comatose

In the mid-2000s, I was living in a small studio apartment in Ocean Beach. My digs were on the corner of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and Santa Cruz Avenue — about three blocks from the ocean. Besides the proximity to the beach, I also had easy access to all the bars, restaurants, and shops on Newport Avenue. My humble abode may have been tiny, but life was good.

While the neighborhood could be overwhelming in the summer when all the inland residents and tourists flocked to the beaches, it was sleepy by early December — and by Christmas Eve, quite comatose. The area cleared out in a manner not too far removed from that of a college campus going on break. The many transplants who rented the local apartments and houses fled back to their families. Usually, I did the same.

But sometimes I waited too long to get a plane ticket, and then I stuck around.

Sticking around was weird. The town was dead. My friends were scattered among other states, and I was spending the most family-oriented week of the year minus both friends and family. It was depressing, but far from an exercise in excruciating pain and misery — except for one year when it was 100 percent excruciating pain and misery.

It began with a plumbing issue. As I recall it, beginning sometime in either November or early December, the water in my unit would not heat up to a temperature above what I will describe as “barely lukewarm.” Imagine taking a sip of a cup of coffee that has been sitting on a Starbucks counter for five hours. Now imagine water of that same temperature coming out of your shower head and soaking your body, which is already cold because you’re too cheap to run the heat in December.

So, no surprise, showers during this particular time period became exercises in speed and endurance. Hair still needed to be washed. Filth still needed to be scrubbed from skin. But both had to be accomplished with haste. I became an Olympic-level athlete in the ultra-obscure sport of speed showering. My times improved, but, no surprise, I still got sick.

Getting sick over the holidays was what I dreaded the most. It was a typical flu. Chills. Aches. Sneezes. Sniffles. Scattered tissues. Weakness. Lots of weakness. In that state, stepping into that chilly line of fire was akin to meeting the Antichrist. The inner MacGyver in me sprang into action and came up with a solution — the warm bath! I would heat up pots full of water on my stove and pour those into the bathtub. Genius! I filled three pots and put them on my electric stove. This warm bath was going to be the best part of an awful week.

And then the circuit breaker tripped. I often look back at this moment as being the definitive low point in a holiday week that is best described as a constant barrage of sorrow. After sulking outside into the drizzle to flip the breaker back, I heated the pots one at a time until I eventually had a bath. It still wasn’t hot, of course. The water from the earlier pots had cooled too much by the time the later pots had been poured.

The cause of the lukewarm water remained a mystery for a couple more months. The hot water heater was replaced and that did nothing to remedy the situation. Various plumbers took a stab at the issue and failed. It was only when the landlords called the contractors who had installed a solar-water heating unit on the roof of a neighboring building that the problem was resolved. At some point, a valve had been opened that allowed cold water to flow directly into the hot water that was headed to my unit. As easily as it had been created, the problem was remedied. But too late to save Christmas.

— Dryw Keltz

More sad than sexy

On December 25, 1993, I woke up in the empty dorm room of an Amsterdam youth hostel. The empty dorm room was the antithesis of every Christmas of my life. Every year previously, my brothers woke me up and dragged me downstairs to where my mom played holiday songs on the record player and the air smelled like her coffee cake. First, we opened our stockings, which “Santa” had stuffed full of magazines and chocolate coins and little gifts and Christmas checks from relatives. Then we had a formal breakfast. Afterward, we opened the big presents, exchanged lots of thank yous, and shared lots of laughs. Later, we waded through big piles of torn wrapping paper, feeling a bit of melancholy and disappointment as all the anticipation leading up to Christmas had come to an end. (Maybe that was just me). Then, visits from friends and possibly skiing. Never nothing.

As much as I loved Christmas with my family, in the week leading up to my somewhat impromptu solo trip to Amsterdam and Prague, I had romantic ideas about being alone and anonymous and untethered on Christmas Day. I imagined myself wandering the streets of Amsterdam to a melancholy soundtrack, writing poetry, and maybe falling in love. Instead, I woke up sad and sought immediately to escape it. Downstairs in the cafe, a man in his 30s or 40s smoked a cigarette. I wanted one, too, but not before coffee. The cafe kitchen was closed. I nodded to the man and went off in search of coffee and distractions.

There was nothing. Coffee, yes, but otherwise, the city was closed for business, and the streets were empty. In the hour I spent outside, the temperature rose from 37 to 38, and then dropped back down to 36. The canals felt anything but romantic as I huddled past them, my gloveless hands trying to hold my sweater closed against the wind. The further I walked, the more my sadness took on an edge of despair. My loneliness was excruciating, and there was no place to hide from it. A warm restaurant, even if I could find one, would not help — other people’s joy would make me feel worse.

My cold feet drove me back to the hostel, and I arrived just as a young Italian guy with Jesus hair was coming in from the cold as well. He reminded me of my bad boy high school boyfriend, and I knew I would sleep with him before the day was done. The staff guy behind the counter in the cafe offered us a Christmas beer. We sat together, drinking and smoking cigarettes, and pretending to understand each other in broken Spanish, because I don’t speak Italian, and he didn’t speak English. After a while, the older guy from the morning joined us. To my 20-year-old self, he was kind of classy and mysterious with his winter scarf and calm demeanor. He was also Italian, and I thought maybe I would sleep with him instead.

When we’d finished our cafe Christmas beers, we braved the cold again and made our way to a bar around the corner. We were three of a handful of people in the bar, but the beer made everything better, more fun, less lonely. We laughed. We smoked. I think we may have eaten something.

And then we slept together. All three of us. We pushed two of the bunk beds together and engaged in an awkward tangle of limbs that was wholly and completely unsatisfying. Even in the moment, I knew it more sad than sexy.

I wish there was more to the story, but there’s not. One of the guys left the next day, and I left the day after that. And that was it. I never saw either of them again. A few months later, I received a postcard written in Italian. I had no idea what it said, but when I saw the front, I knew who it was from. It was a photograph of what looked like three pigs humping. I still have it.

— Elizabeth Salaam

A caustic monster of self-loathing

I haven’t always lived alone. Once, I was happily married, raising a daughter we both adored, and Christmas was quite a wonderful experience.

Then came the breakup, the revolving door of “intolerable cruelty” and “irreconcilable differences,” and I was left to face the world alone. At first, that was overwhelming. I sought solace in illegal chemicals and nurtured a caustic monster of self-loathing.

Ended up back home and wasting a humiliating number of years not even trying to climb out from the abyss. My daughter grew up (she was the only thing that kept me from losing hope), my father died, and I eventually had to make the choice between cleaning up, death by overdose, prison, or a mental institution.

Somehow, I managed to clean up. By then, my mother was starting to slip away from Alzheimer’s, and I was lucky enough to help take care of her in her last years.

My mom loved Christmas. Everything about it. From signing cards (we would spend days in that pursuit, since she barely had the energy to sign her name) to singing along to the endless supply of devotional music she had collected over the years. It was her favorite season. On Christmas Eve, all of her family would gather to celebrate, and she was seldom happier.

And then, on December 11, 2013, she made her transition. There would be no more trees to decorate, no more cards to sign, no more music. Fourteen days later, we gathered at my older sister’s house for a decidedly more pensive celebration.

After Mom’s passing, our extended brood would still gather at my sister’s house on Christmas Eve. She had become the magnetic center of my family. A force powerful enough to unite the siblings and the scores of cousins, nieces, and nephews under one roof.

My sister Patricia was 16 years old by the time I came along. She was a straight-A student who overcame many obstacles in her life. It was difficult growing up in her shadow. She was the smartest and most driven person I had ever known, and yet she had the ability to always make me feel that I was the really gifted one. I have a feeling she did the same with everyone.

She had a massive stroke in 2004, and was forced to spend the rest of her days in a hospital bed at home, cared for by my niece. Most of her body was paralyzed. She could only really use the index finger of one hand, and still she managed to write the most beautiful emails, letters, and essays on her laptop with that lone digit. Incredibly, she never felt sorry for herself. She became immersed in genealogy. She read books by the hundreds and managed to never forget a birthday or a special occasion. Pat wrote a book about her life, and the various trials she endured on her way to becoming one of the first Episcopal female priests to be ordained in California.

I was with her when we got the shocking news that she was suffering from Stage-4 bone cancer last August. Less than a week later, Patricia passed away. That was even more wrenching than my mom’s death. Now there are only three members of our nuclear family left. My other sister lives in Italy and my brother spends most of his holidays out of state.

I have much to be thankful for, and I try to remind myself of that every day. But after Pat died, the whole season began to sour for me. My daughter and my granddaughters live way out of state, so a phone call must substitute for the magic of touch and laughter. I haven’t had a tree, hung lights, or wrapped presents in many years.

— Robco

No chimneys for Santa

It was two days before Christmas in 1984, and it was hot out. We had just wrapped up a Christmas breakdance performance for our pops’ officemates in one of their office buildings on Roxas Boulevard overlooking Manila Bay. We called ourselves the Floor Masters, a group of American b-boys reppin’ International School, an elementary and middle school in Manila. “Let’s chill at the brand new subway station,” I said to my crew; the other five obliged, and we strolled to the Gil Puyat station with boombox in tow, bumpin’ Twilight 22’s “Siberian Nights.”

We hoped to run into Info Clash, a well-known breakdance crew. But we didn’t. So to make do before our 9:30 pm commitment to return to the Christmas party, we found an area with smooth flooring, reminiscent of our shared roll of linoleum.

By now, our mixtape was playing “Jam On It” by Newcleus.

The breakers in our crew, including myself, Rich, Rogelio, Jip, and John, busted windmills, headspins, swipes, Tazmanian devils, flips, and backspins. Jason, a popper/strutter, stayed up and waved, king-tutted, and pantomimed.

We had a small crowd gathering, but then a security guard yelled, “Hoy, bawal yoon dito! (Hey, that’s not allowed here!)” We bolted into the train car, and as the doors closed behind us. I snapped back with a grinchy Tagalog phrase.

In the Philippines, one of my elders said, “Santa Claus is not coming to town, because we don’t have chimneys. The average temperature here in the Philippines is 80 degrees.”

Christmas traditions there were different than in the U.S. I attended Mass almost every night leading up to December 24. Then, on Christmas Eve, we’d have a feast — then gamble. In our household, we played mahjong, a four-player tile-based game from China. As a kid, you’d have to earn your right to gamble with the elders. In my case, I’d breakdance or create comedy skits to disrupt the mahjong monotony. The adults would tip me. I’d also remain on standby to run to the nearby sari-sari (store) to buy liquor, cigarettes, or a plastic bag filled with soda for them. After I’d proven myself worthy, I was allowed to sit in on one of the spots if the player needed to eat merienda or go to the “CR” (bathroom). Another tradition was that we kids could receive balato (good luck money) when a player pulled a bunot tile and won a jackpot. I woke up on Christmas morning, clenching my tip money in hand. Santa had brought me two Beat Street movie soundtrack cassettes for my breaking crew. I didn’t ask how he had come in.

– Mike Madriaga

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

Staring At The Sun Album Release, Untappd San Diego Beer Festival, Mdou Moctar

Events September 30-October 1, 2021
Next Article

Audit hits Donovan state prison for shoddy tuberculosis care, loose injectable handling

“Warehouse staff did not consistently dispense needles to health care staff; staff could help themselves.”

Christmas Jerk

I managed to avoid being homeless on Christmas Eve 1979, but just barely. Unemployed since that summer, I found a cheap flophouse on 12th and Island where 70 bucks a month got me a room so small that I had to open the door to get out of bed. It was my first holiday in San Diego, 3000 miles from my New England hometown.

Christmas Eve, I got it in my head that I wanted to sneak into a theater to see Steve Martin’s new movie, The Jerk, which was playing within bicycling range at the Campus Drive-In near SDSU.

I wasn’t new to sneaking into drive-ins, either hiding in cars or jumping the fence to meet up with paid customers already parked inside. But for some reason, it never occurred to me that sneaking into a drive-in without something to drive in might get me noticed.

Stashing my bike in the bushes and getting over the chain-link fence on one side of the lot was easy enough. My plan was to find an unused pole surrounded by cars. Then, I could sit on the ground and use the speaker pole as a backrest and the cars for camouflage. But there were only a handful of cars on the lot, all spaced too far apart.

I found the speaker post that seemed furthest from view of the snack bar and projection booth and sat down to enjoy the movie, which was just starting as I breached the gate (always the ideal cue, as everyone’s attention is on the screen). I knew I could easily be spotted, but I was hoping a holiday evening would find the theater staff as sparsely populated as the parking lot.

I unhooked a paper bag from my belt and took out the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I hoped would keep my belly filled until the next day’s all-you-can-eat holiday buffet at Beasley’s Friendly Corner, a deceptively named dive of the damned next to my hotel.

Unfortunately, Steve Martin’s character had barely learned shit from Shinola when I saw a kid around the same age as me, in his late teens, deliberately hiking his way across the cement bumps from the snack bar toward me. He looked as unhappy as I felt.

“Do you have a ticket, sir?” I shrugged my shoulders, no use lying.

“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave.”

I was already trying to recall what was playing at the next drive-in, a little further down the Boulevard, as I put my sandwich back in the bag. Maybe their staff was a little less vigilant.

But then the kid kind of looked past me, over my shoulder, even though there was nothing behind me but parking lot and fence. His eyes didn’t seem to focus on anything specific, he was just kind of looking. And not saying anything. Like he was thinking about something, maybe remembering something.

I probably muttered “Sorry” as I stood up and dusted gravel off my butt, prepared for eviction via the inevitable march of shame past the ticket booth, where someone else with a job would likely cuss me out too.

“You know what?” the kid said, his eyes focusing on me again. “Enjoy the movie. Merry Christmas!” And with that, he was heading back toward the snack bar before I could do much more than say, “Wow, thanks, you too!”

I’m not sure what made the kid change his mind, and I hope he didn’t get in trouble. It was kind of a Christmas Carol moment.

Maybe I just looked particularly pitiful, all alone on Christmas Eve, sitting on the cold cement with my PB&J. But I didn’t feel pitiful. I felt great! That’s how much I love drive-ins. And what a good time I ended up having that night, enjoying my gift of a free movie. A great free movie. This isn’t at all a sad memory for me.

Luckily, in the years since then, I haven’t had to make a holiday meal of peanut butter and jelly. But I do keep The Jerk racked with the Christmas DVDs.

— Jay Allen Sanford

A bachelor’s Christmas

When they asked why I hadn’t made it home for Christmas, I blamed the military, which wasn’t a total fabrication. The Marine Corps had sent my parents to Japan that year. That put a 24-hour travel day between “home for Christmas” and where my 25-year-old self lived: in a shared three-bedroom east of Hollywood.

“You fly west, over the international date line,” I regaled my hosts, regarding that flight to Japan. “So your plane takes off Wednesday night, lands Friday morning, and you never set foot on Thursday.” The Andersons had all made the trip in the middle of my high school years, and that loophole in the time zone was famous in our household for allowing my mom to technically skip right over her 40th birthday.

I shared the anecdote in a stylish Mission Hills home, as we each raised a glass to Christmas Eve, and to the unblinking understanding this was exactly the one night a year you’re kind of the jerk if you don’t take in the traveling stranger on your doorstep. This family was genuine and gracious, made great conversation, and couldn’t have been more welcoming.

“Damn it,” I thought. I was afraid this would happen.

It was convenient to scapegoat the military for not going home, but it’s closer to the truth to say that I found myself alone on Christmas by choice. I couldn’t rightly have been called a Grinch at that point, but I was glad to avoid the stress of the holidays. Plus, my college ideals were still fresh, which meant that on the one hand I decried the crass commercialism that corrupted the true spirit of the season, and on the other, I had a week off work and wanted to party.

That other hand is how I wound up in San Diego. My roommates had gone home for the holidays, and I heard a few friends would be gathering down this way. With a futon in the covered bed of my pickup, I ventured south for the weekend without much of a plan. Only, I didn’t fully comprehend how much area this county covers. With my pals scattered all across it, I took a couple extra days to get to everyone.

Worst case, I knew I could slip out of town early Christmas Eve, avoiding any awkward invitations to stay and crash a family holiday. But one more friend reached out at the last minute. She was visiting from the East Coast, and finally had time to get together tonight after all. I could pick her up at her parents’ Mission Hills house, one of those mid-century jobs that sit flush to the street, with a basement level built into the canyon.

When I arrived, she suggested hanging out in the basement instead. Her sister and a few friends joined us for drinks. Then their parents began sharing nicer bottles of wine than most twenty-somethings deserve. In the midst of one of those bottles opening, I mentioned I should stop drinking if I hoped to make the drive home to L.A.

But that wouldn’t do. They couldn’t abandon a holiday orphan to the streets. The wine was poured, the compact agreed to. We would all drink with ardor, and I would fall asleep on the rec room couch with my mouth hanging open. They were, as I said, lovely people, with generous hearts.

Which occurred to me first thing upon waking, just as morning light began to reach the back corners of the house. Already I could hear giddy steps overhead as the family prepared a Christmas morning. Any moment now, they would come downstairs with jolly songs to rouse me. I could imagine the extra place setting at their breakfast table, and the charitable smiles as they presented me a stocking, hastily stuffed with small, scavenged gifts, so I wouldn’t feel left out. And I would stand there, feeling like an interloper: the guy who drank too much but woke up in time for Christmas ham.

When they descended the stairs to call me in for breakfast and togetherness, they found an empty couch and a pile of blankets. I’d crept up the back staircase, out through the garage, and was already making record time cruising up an empty freeway. In under two hours, I was experiencing the lone, lazy Christmas celebration I’d envisioned. For the first time in my adult life, I had a house all to myself, and thus an entire, perfect day I could waste on watching old movies, eating junk food, playing music too loud, and napping on a whim. Or, as I would come to call it during most of my bachelor years: Christmas tradition.

— Ian Anderson

A pregnant, homesick Christmas

When I was 19, I found out I was pregnant. I had decided to stay in Lawrence, the sleepy Kansas college town where I lived, rather than go home after the school year ended. I wanted to spend a leisurely summer free of responsibility. Pregnancy was not part of that plan. My dad had been recently diagnosed with cancer. A tumor the size of a golf ball had taken up residency in his brain. I avoided the heavy sadness that blanketed my childhood home by staying away. If I didn’t have to see him deteriorate, maybe it wasn’t happening.

“I’m going to stay here through the summer,” I told my mom nonchalantly over the phone. There was silence on her end. She was seething.

I met Aaron in June. I was sitting on my porch blaring Janis Joplin and drinking $2 wine straight from the bottle with my friend Kylie.

“Aaron!” Kylie shouted, waving frantically when she noticed him across the street. He made his way toward us. He had shaggy blond hair, blueish green eyes, and a bloody scab running the length of one leg. He was beautiful.

“Mountain biking accident,” he said with a shrug when he noticed me looking at it.

From that moment on, we were inseparable. We dated all summer until my dad’s health declined and I was compelled to move back home. It was then that I noticed I was throwing up as much as he was, and I wasn’t doing chemo.

I was two months pregnant when I finally broke the news to my parents. They were less than pleased.

It was decided that Aaron would fly out to Chicago and meet my family for Thanksgiving. Christmas we would spend with his before we moved in together.

Aaron flew in two days before Thanksgiving. While running an errand, my dad lost his temper — something he rarely did. The grocery store was flooded with last-minute shoppers. We circled the lot and found only one open spot. A sign in front of it read, “reserved for pregnant women.” “That’s a definite perk to my condition!”I blurted. The whole car erupted into laughter. Dad turned to Aaron and barked, “There is nothing funny about a 19-year-old pregnant girl!”

Later that night, Dad pulled me aside and said, “He’s not Catholic. That’s a real problem!”

I shrugged. He let out a deep sigh.

Before he left, Aaron told my dad he was going to marry me.

“In a Catholic church, I hope,” was Dad’s response.

For Christmas, I flew to Kansas. It was my turn to meet the family. We stayed at Aaron’s mom’s and stepdad’s house. She bubbled with excitement over the unborn baby. “I can’t wait!” she gushed, something I wished my parents would say. She was pretty and blonde. She wore sweater sets and slacks. We stayed in the guest bedroom. It overlooked a golf course. The bed was so tall I needed a step stool to get into it. Everything was some form of vanilla — the walls, the furniture, even their fluffy dog.

A few days before Christmas, Aaron’s mom drove us to KC Barbecue. “If you love Aaron, you have to love KC Barbecue,” she said. They ordered piles of meat. It was served with a loaf of white bread. Aaron and his brothers devoured everything. I was horrified when his 15-year-old brother turned to me, said, “You don’t need napkins when you’ve got bread,” then wiped his hands on a slice before popping it into his mouth.

Christmas Eve, we attended a Presbyterian church service. Aaron sang so loudly that his wildly out-of-tune voice rose above the others. My family did not sing at church. We left that sort of thing to the choir.

Christmas morning when I woke, Aaron was already downstairs. I was still in my pajamas. The rest of the family were dressed, showered, and had made their beds. They were sitting around the Christmas tree, ready to exchange gifts.

Back home, my family always made a big deal of Christmas. Our stockings were overfilled with loot. We had more presents than we deserved — a ridiculous amount that I always felt guilty about.

Aaron’s family was sensible. The stockings at their house were empty, ornamental. They took turns opening gifts, prying tape and paper off neatly, nothing like the savage way my family ripped apart wrapping jobs. Aaron received socks, underwear, and a flannel from Lands End. Aaron’s mom bought me earrings, turquoise with a silver feather. She was embarrassed when she noticed that my ears weren’t pierced. I was equally embarrassed when she said, “I just figured... most girls’ ears are pierced.”

Afterward, each scrap of wrapping paper was thrown away. It was nothing like the after Christmas hurricane I was accustomed to. It was peaceful. Zen-like.

At that very moment, my house was probably filled with people. My baby cousin had undoubtedly left a trail of uneaten Christmas cookies in her wake — one behind the curtains, one on my dad’s chair, another under the Christmas tree. They’d be talking too loud. Gaelic Park’s Irish Hour would be blaring in the background, the sound of fiddles filling the house. Eventually, my brother would drag out his guitar. Soon they’d all be singing “South Side Irish.” There would be a big mess. It would not be cleaned up until over the weekend.

At Aaron’s mom’s house, I retired upstairs and sat on the oversized guest bed. I was desperately homesick. Was this what my life was going to be like now — quiet and sensible?

Aaron came up not long after. “I have a surprise for you!” His eyes gleamed, “We are going on an adventure!”

We drove two hours before Aaron finally turned down a snow-covered road. We parked in front of an old barn.

A man wearing a heavy jacket greeted us. We followed him to a fenced off portion of the yard. Inside were brown and yellow Labrador retriever puppies.

“Pick the one you want,” he said

I looked at Aaron quizzically.

“You heard him,” he prompted, “whichever one you want.”

“To keep?” I was confused.

“You said you pictured us as one of those outdoorsy families with a cute kid and a Labrador. I can’t promise a cute kid, but I can promise a cute dog.”

I knew in that moment that things were going to be different. Maybe the holidays would not look like what either of us were accustomed to, but we would have our own traditions now. I reached down and picked a roly-poly ball of brown fluff.

“That one?” the man asked. “Are you sure? That one’s the runt.”

“I’m sure,” I nodded. She was so tiny and perfect, the way I imagined our baby would be. And, Baby Andrew was perfect. He was also sort of a runt. Born five weeks early and five pounds even, nearly two months to the day later.

On the drive home to Aaron’s mom’s house I confessed, “I love you, but I don’t think I’ll ever love KC barbecue.”

“That’s okay,” he replied. “I don’t think I’ll ever become a Catholic.”

— Siobhan Braun

A broken leg for Christmas

It was a hot, end-of-vacation Friday. Summertime. Christmas was near. Cicadas zinging. This was New Zealand, where I grew up. I was eight. My brother was at a sea cadet camp. My parents were away at a town 40 miles north. It wasn’t a big deal. They were journalists. They were always off somewhere. Just not usually the two of them gone, together. But they said they had this important interview. It didn’t bother me. I was just bored.

“Come to the Catholic courts and let me beat you again,” said my best friend Richard on the phone.

So I grabbed my racquet, jumped on my bike, and headed off for the Catholic courts, a mile down Muritai Road. I got there before Richard. Started volleying against the volley board. I was a kid who was always late, so the fact that “Herb,” as we called him, arrived after me was a delicious moment, which I celebrated by trying to hit him with my shots as he rode between me and the board. He kept riding the gauntlet, faster and faster.

Then I didn’t see him for a moment. I looked to my right and here he came, tearing up in the opposite direction. He was trying to zip past, just behind me, to give me a scare. But I saw him and took a couple of steps back, so I could still aim at him.

Shouldn’t have done that. He tried to counter my move. We collided. When I started to get up, I couldn’t. My right lower leg was folded in two.

“Sure it’s okay,” said Richard.

Our friend Eric Bowen rode up.

“But it’s folded over.”

“Probably just twisted,” said Richard. “Think you can ride home?”

By now pain was starting to jam in. Especially when I tried to straighten it.

“Eric, give him a dub home on your bike. I’ll bring his.”

“Should someone call a doctor or something?”

That’s me. I can’t stop looking at my bent leg. And it’s really starting to hurt.

That dub, sitting on the bar of Eric’s bike, with my dangling leg juddering every time we hit a bump, was a doozy. “Sorry,” he kept saying.

At my place, on Tawa Street, the garage doors were locked. That meant mum and dad weren’t back yet. Eric found an apple box, where I could sit outside and lean against the doors with my broken leg dangling free, and wait for my parents. Somebody, Richard, I think — he was there by now with my bike and racquet — got Mrs. Hewitt, about the only neighbor home this time of day, to call for an ambulance. She came out and said the nearest ambulance base was 10 miles away, and they would be an hour or so because they were on another job.

So everybody hung around awkwardly, but in the end, remembered other things they had to do.

I just sat on the applebox, feeling the pain start to take over.

“I’ve gotta go. Teatime. Mum will kill me,” said Herb. “I’m sure it’s not broken.”

I looked down at my leg. I could see one fractured end underneath, trying to bust through the skin.

“See ya,” I said.

“Me too,” said Eric. But he didn’t look at me as he picked up his bike.

“Thanks for the dub,” I said.

I felt heroic, like Robin Alone, a comic book character who had to survive by hunting and swinging through trees. I thought about all the times I had been up alone in the miles of bush behind our house, slipping and climbing in my own Robin Alone fantasy world. Yet this had happened on a tennis court.

After what felt like hours, the ambulance came and loaded me up. God it hurt. Lorna Hewitt sat beside me. As we swung around the bays, I saw out of the back window my parents, zooming past us, homeward-bound in their white Zephyr droptop. They seemed to be sitting close together. Mom’s head was on dad’s shoulder.

“It’s my parents! Honk your horn!” I yelled, but they were already in the next bay.

“Darling!” said my mom a couple of hours later, after they had reset my leg and wrapped me in plaster from foot to crotch. “Why did you have to pick today of all days? Are we bad parents? Are you punishing us? This is too, too subliminal. Your father and I have so little time together, away from you boys.”

Actually, she didn’t say that. But that’s what it felt like.

— Bill Manson

OB comatose

In the mid-2000s, I was living in a small studio apartment in Ocean Beach. My digs were on the corner of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and Santa Cruz Avenue — about three blocks from the ocean. Besides the proximity to the beach, I also had easy access to all the bars, restaurants, and shops on Newport Avenue. My humble abode may have been tiny, but life was good.

While the neighborhood could be overwhelming in the summer when all the inland residents and tourists flocked to the beaches, it was sleepy by early December — and by Christmas Eve, quite comatose. The area cleared out in a manner not too far removed from that of a college campus going on break. The many transplants who rented the local apartments and houses fled back to their families. Usually, I did the same.

But sometimes I waited too long to get a plane ticket, and then I stuck around.

Sticking around was weird. The town was dead. My friends were scattered among other states, and I was spending the most family-oriented week of the year minus both friends and family. It was depressing, but far from an exercise in excruciating pain and misery — except for one year when it was 100 percent excruciating pain and misery.

It began with a plumbing issue. As I recall it, beginning sometime in either November or early December, the water in my unit would not heat up to a temperature above what I will describe as “barely lukewarm.” Imagine taking a sip of a cup of coffee that has been sitting on a Starbucks counter for five hours. Now imagine water of that same temperature coming out of your shower head and soaking your body, which is already cold because you’re too cheap to run the heat in December.

So, no surprise, showers during this particular time period became exercises in speed and endurance. Hair still needed to be washed. Filth still needed to be scrubbed from skin. But both had to be accomplished with haste. I became an Olympic-level athlete in the ultra-obscure sport of speed showering. My times improved, but, no surprise, I still got sick.

Getting sick over the holidays was what I dreaded the most. It was a typical flu. Chills. Aches. Sneezes. Sniffles. Scattered tissues. Weakness. Lots of weakness. In that state, stepping into that chilly line of fire was akin to meeting the Antichrist. The inner MacGyver in me sprang into action and came up with a solution — the warm bath! I would heat up pots full of water on my stove and pour those into the bathtub. Genius! I filled three pots and put them on my electric stove. This warm bath was going to be the best part of an awful week.

And then the circuit breaker tripped. I often look back at this moment as being the definitive low point in a holiday week that is best described as a constant barrage of sorrow. After sulking outside into the drizzle to flip the breaker back, I heated the pots one at a time until I eventually had a bath. It still wasn’t hot, of course. The water from the earlier pots had cooled too much by the time the later pots had been poured.

The cause of the lukewarm water remained a mystery for a couple more months. The hot water heater was replaced and that did nothing to remedy the situation. Various plumbers took a stab at the issue and failed. It was only when the landlords called the contractors who had installed a solar-water heating unit on the roof of a neighboring building that the problem was resolved. At some point, a valve had been opened that allowed cold water to flow directly into the hot water that was headed to my unit. As easily as it had been created, the problem was remedied. But too late to save Christmas.

— Dryw Keltz

More sad than sexy

On December 25, 1993, I woke up in the empty dorm room of an Amsterdam youth hostel. The empty dorm room was the antithesis of every Christmas of my life. Every year previously, my brothers woke me up and dragged me downstairs to where my mom played holiday songs on the record player and the air smelled like her coffee cake. First, we opened our stockings, which “Santa” had stuffed full of magazines and chocolate coins and little gifts and Christmas checks from relatives. Then we had a formal breakfast. Afterward, we opened the big presents, exchanged lots of thank yous, and shared lots of laughs. Later, we waded through big piles of torn wrapping paper, feeling a bit of melancholy and disappointment as all the anticipation leading up to Christmas had come to an end. (Maybe that was just me). Then, visits from friends and possibly skiing. Never nothing.

As much as I loved Christmas with my family, in the week leading up to my somewhat impromptu solo trip to Amsterdam and Prague, I had romantic ideas about being alone and anonymous and untethered on Christmas Day. I imagined myself wandering the streets of Amsterdam to a melancholy soundtrack, writing poetry, and maybe falling in love. Instead, I woke up sad and sought immediately to escape it. Downstairs in the cafe, a man in his 30s or 40s smoked a cigarette. I wanted one, too, but not before coffee. The cafe kitchen was closed. I nodded to the man and went off in search of coffee and distractions.

There was nothing. Coffee, yes, but otherwise, the city was closed for business, and the streets were empty. In the hour I spent outside, the temperature rose from 37 to 38, and then dropped back down to 36. The canals felt anything but romantic as I huddled past them, my gloveless hands trying to hold my sweater closed against the wind. The further I walked, the more my sadness took on an edge of despair. My loneliness was excruciating, and there was no place to hide from it. A warm restaurant, even if I could find one, would not help — other people’s joy would make me feel worse.

My cold feet drove me back to the hostel, and I arrived just as a young Italian guy with Jesus hair was coming in from the cold as well. He reminded me of my bad boy high school boyfriend, and I knew I would sleep with him before the day was done. The staff guy behind the counter in the cafe offered us a Christmas beer. We sat together, drinking and smoking cigarettes, and pretending to understand each other in broken Spanish, because I don’t speak Italian, and he didn’t speak English. After a while, the older guy from the morning joined us. To my 20-year-old self, he was kind of classy and mysterious with his winter scarf and calm demeanor. He was also Italian, and I thought maybe I would sleep with him instead.

When we’d finished our cafe Christmas beers, we braved the cold again and made our way to a bar around the corner. We were three of a handful of people in the bar, but the beer made everything better, more fun, less lonely. We laughed. We smoked. I think we may have eaten something.

And then we slept together. All three of us. We pushed two of the bunk beds together and engaged in an awkward tangle of limbs that was wholly and completely unsatisfying. Even in the moment, I knew it more sad than sexy.

I wish there was more to the story, but there’s not. One of the guys left the next day, and I left the day after that. And that was it. I never saw either of them again. A few months later, I received a postcard written in Italian. I had no idea what it said, but when I saw the front, I knew who it was from. It was a photograph of what looked like three pigs humping. I still have it.

— Elizabeth Salaam

A caustic monster of self-loathing

I haven’t always lived alone. Once, I was happily married, raising a daughter we both adored, and Christmas was quite a wonderful experience.

Then came the breakup, the revolving door of “intolerable cruelty” and “irreconcilable differences,” and I was left to face the world alone. At first, that was overwhelming. I sought solace in illegal chemicals and nurtured a caustic monster of self-loathing.

Ended up back home and wasting a humiliating number of years not even trying to climb out from the abyss. My daughter grew up (she was the only thing that kept me from losing hope), my father died, and I eventually had to make the choice between cleaning up, death by overdose, prison, or a mental institution.

Somehow, I managed to clean up. By then, my mother was starting to slip away from Alzheimer’s, and I was lucky enough to help take care of her in her last years.

My mom loved Christmas. Everything about it. From signing cards (we would spend days in that pursuit, since she barely had the energy to sign her name) to singing along to the endless supply of devotional music she had collected over the years. It was her favorite season. On Christmas Eve, all of her family would gather to celebrate, and she was seldom happier.

And then, on December 11, 2013, she made her transition. There would be no more trees to decorate, no more cards to sign, no more music. Fourteen days later, we gathered at my older sister’s house for a decidedly more pensive celebration.

After Mom’s passing, our extended brood would still gather at my sister’s house on Christmas Eve. She had become the magnetic center of my family. A force powerful enough to unite the siblings and the scores of cousins, nieces, and nephews under one roof.

My sister Patricia was 16 years old by the time I came along. She was a straight-A student who overcame many obstacles in her life. It was difficult growing up in her shadow. She was the smartest and most driven person I had ever known, and yet she had the ability to always make me feel that I was the really gifted one. I have a feeling she did the same with everyone.

She had a massive stroke in 2004, and was forced to spend the rest of her days in a hospital bed at home, cared for by my niece. Most of her body was paralyzed. She could only really use the index finger of one hand, and still she managed to write the most beautiful emails, letters, and essays on her laptop with that lone digit. Incredibly, she never felt sorry for herself. She became immersed in genealogy. She read books by the hundreds and managed to never forget a birthday or a special occasion. Pat wrote a book about her life, and the various trials she endured on her way to becoming one of the first Episcopal female priests to be ordained in California.

I was with her when we got the shocking news that she was suffering from Stage-4 bone cancer last August. Less than a week later, Patricia passed away. That was even more wrenching than my mom’s death. Now there are only three members of our nuclear family left. My other sister lives in Italy and my brother spends most of his holidays out of state.

I have much to be thankful for, and I try to remind myself of that every day. But after Pat died, the whole season began to sour for me. My daughter and my granddaughters live way out of state, so a phone call must substitute for the magic of touch and laughter. I haven’t had a tree, hung lights, or wrapped presents in many years.

— Robco

No chimneys for Santa

It was two days before Christmas in 1984, and it was hot out. We had just wrapped up a Christmas breakdance performance for our pops’ officemates in one of their office buildings on Roxas Boulevard overlooking Manila Bay. We called ourselves the Floor Masters, a group of American b-boys reppin’ International School, an elementary and middle school in Manila. “Let’s chill at the brand new subway station,” I said to my crew; the other five obliged, and we strolled to the Gil Puyat station with boombox in tow, bumpin’ Twilight 22’s “Siberian Nights.”

We hoped to run into Info Clash, a well-known breakdance crew. But we didn’t. So to make do before our 9:30 pm commitment to return to the Christmas party, we found an area with smooth flooring, reminiscent of our shared roll of linoleum.

By now, our mixtape was playing “Jam On It” by Newcleus.

The breakers in our crew, including myself, Rich, Rogelio, Jip, and John, busted windmills, headspins, swipes, Tazmanian devils, flips, and backspins. Jason, a popper/strutter, stayed up and waved, king-tutted, and pantomimed.

We had a small crowd gathering, but then a security guard yelled, “Hoy, bawal yoon dito! (Hey, that’s not allowed here!)” We bolted into the train car, and as the doors closed behind us. I snapped back with a grinchy Tagalog phrase.

In the Philippines, one of my elders said, “Santa Claus is not coming to town, because we don’t have chimneys. The average temperature here in the Philippines is 80 degrees.”

Christmas traditions there were different than in the U.S. I attended Mass almost every night leading up to December 24. Then, on Christmas Eve, we’d have a feast — then gamble. In our household, we played mahjong, a four-player tile-based game from China. As a kid, you’d have to earn your right to gamble with the elders. In my case, I’d breakdance or create comedy skits to disrupt the mahjong monotony. The adults would tip me. I’d also remain on standby to run to the nearby sari-sari (store) to buy liquor, cigarettes, or a plastic bag filled with soda for them. After I’d proven myself worthy, I was allowed to sit in on one of the spots if the player needed to eat merienda or go to the “CR” (bathroom). Another tradition was that we kids could receive balato (good luck money) when a player pulled a bunot tile and won a jackpot. I woke up on Christmas morning, clenching my tip money in hand. Santa had brought me two Beat Street movie soundtrack cassettes for my breaking crew. I didn’t ask how he had come in.

– Mike Madriaga

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Betty Broderick's version of killing her husband

The ideal marriage, the stellar law career, the trial, jail life
Next Article

The ugly war housing of Midway-Rosecrans, San Diego's Japanese imprisoned in Poston, Arizona

Douglas Hotel as center of black culture, Pt. Loma's lost cannons, U-T wanted Japanese out of San Diego, the busy gas station at Bacon and Cable
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close