Magazine | January 22, 2018, Issue

Village Christmas

The tree at Rockefeller Center, New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

Living a half-life in the country for 18 years has changed my life in the city. I spend weekends driving to the gas station and the dump, the pileated woodpecker shouts cuck cuck cuck, skunks leave their love notes by our bedroom. In the beloved city I try to keep eyes away from small screens and ears budless, to catch it all, but all is bound by rounds of work, gym, lunch. “Why don’t we walk there?” is seldom heard. “There” has also become less interesting, a vista of drug stores and kid-clothes chains (or am I just old?). In the Christmas season, we took a longer time in the city.

The singing group we met in 40 years ago (religious music of the Renaissance, performed on street corners) does a seasonal evening of Christmas carols: half old standards, half classics and curios (medieval, Spanish, Lutheran, Holst). The evening begins with a two-hour rehearsal in the conductor’s loft. Over the years, this former industrial space has acquired a solid floor, two modern bathrooms, a pleasant kitchen, and filing cabinets stuffed with the homemade singers’ editions that the conductor has lovingly created, supplying translations of the Latin and adjudicating ficta. The active group typically has about 20 members; caroling draws twice that, swollen by friends and alumni.

This year we recognized no one, apart from the conductor. My wife pointed out Michael, my fellow bass. He had shaved his beard, and looked unusually good; a second look showed that he was not Michael at all, but someone else. The mustached tenor accountant — not there. The bright-voiced alto who always brought a tambourine — not there. The bass-soprano couple who met in the group, as we did, and got married exactly one year after we did — not there. The soprano who used to host the caroling party in her place in Brooklyn died years ago. The conductor was still at his post; my wife, uncertain of his exact age, asked him. “Seventy-six trombones,” he answered brightly.

We went through all the numbers that, owing to obscurity or difficulty, we rarely sing: odd modes, too many repeats, how do you pronounce “aye”? Maybe we’ll do them next year. Before showtime, the conductor called a 15-minute break. Singers, oral always, flocked to the kitchen counter, covered in snacks.

We raised the curtain on the sidewalk in front of his building, forcing pedestrians to loop out into the street around us, though they seemed not to mind. When he was younger, the conductor sang the initial pitches of all four parts; now he plays the tonic on a mechanical pitch pipe. The trick of singing from sheet music is to hold it at an angle that lets you easily look up to your director, and out to your audience, although after 40 years one knows almost all these pieces by heart.

The overture was a success; we went down the avenue to the Bauhaus emergency room with a white concrete porch and awning, projecting like jaws. Good acoustics, good sightlines for passersby. We collected an applauding crowd (no sleet helped). The conductor was on his game, or we were: We took breaths when he indicated, followed his ritards.

The last stop was the little park named for the Civil War general (Union: his statue is safe). There is a subway stop there, lots of traffic, people shopping; even so, new listeners collected. Our last number was a Bach chorale. “[Minor, hesitant] This Child, now weak in infancy, [chromatic escalator] our confidence and joy shall be, [forte] the pow’r of Satan breaking, [Bach brings it home] our peace eternal making.”

We walked off through the old brick streets. There used to be a coffee house that served excellent chocolate cake. There was a store that kept fringed lizards in the window. There is an improvement, an urban garden (now asleep for winter). Couldn’t find a cab, so we kept on. A long block, used to be jewelry, shoulder bags, interesting clothes, then fast food for collegians, now turning sleek and upscale. There, across the street from where it had last been ten years ago, was Michael’s store.

He is a very different Michael. Handsome, like an old coin, or a wolf. His surname is Irish, out of a Bing Crosby priest movie. His pushback against that was elaborate. Each of us had bought some things from him decades ago: me a suit with an odd collar that at first looked unusual, then became lost in time, so I stopped wearing it; my wife, a jumpsuit that suited her perfectly, and that she practically wore out. Then there was a phase when he was doing denim: not pseudo-farmhand denim for outer-borough artisans, but denim for wannabe rappers. In each stylistic incarnation, Michael’s prices were sky-high: Who were his regular customers? Performers, and their admirers, was my best guess. He wore his own stock, following the trends, though he always managed to seem older than the rocks on which he sat.

Everything now was black, with a few touches of white (including Michael’s hair). Leather, fur, fur, leather. The only thing I might have worn was a long cutaway coat, fit for a Regency coachman, if he drove a hearse. My wife pointed out a black-leather pregnancy outfit in the front window. A standful of umbrellas sported handles made of bedizened skulls; the walls were decorated in bondage masks. The assistant wore a jacket with a death’s-head on the back, but it was textured: a soft and fuzzy death’s-head. The Christmas tree was a cone of metallic rings, with a small disco ball suspended down the center. A lot of this is for show, for the store and customers alike (how bad I am). But acts become character acts, which become lives — at least until the next fashion metamorphosis.

We kept on walking. Brownstone churches. Fast food for scholars (that’s where it went). George Washington, riding to reoccupy the city from the British.

Happy New Year.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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