Christmas gifts

by Brian Clarey

Christmas Eve, Garden City, NY Christmas comes softly to Garden City, NY this year, nestling across this part of Long Island like a blanket fresh out of the dryer on this cold winter’s morning. Cotton wisps hang in the pale blue sky and the sun’s so bright it’s white, casting the corner of 7th Street and Franklin Avenue in a gentle luminosity.

This angle the sun takes is peculiar to Long Island in the winter, and to me it doesn’t feel like Christmas until I’m basking in it.

The denizens of my hometown bustle in this wash of light, making last-minute purchases, ticking off to-do’s, grabbing lunch and maybe a couple of pops over at Leo’s or Sweeney’s before the Battle of New York — the Giants vs. the Jets — commences at 1 p.m.

We’ve all got skin in the game. When I grew up here this was Giants territory, but the scarcity of available tickets brought the Jets to prominence among the Wall Street set, always a healthy cohort here in Garden City. Down the street at the Men’s Club, no doubt, wagers on the game rise into the six figures. Many a Christmas morning will be either made or destroyed, depending on the outcome.

For the record, I’m a Giants fan, though I bear no ill will towards Jets fans, loutish and crass though they may be, and despite the fact that most of them seem to hate the Giants more than they love the Jets.

At kickoff I’m in the Starbucks, squinting against that pale, white light, working against multiple deadlines with a lengthy list of my own: gifts, visits, the plotting of logistics, a final reckoning of expenditures. And I can’t leave this place until my column is done, though if I sit here long enough I will doubtless encounter a long-lost face and burn an hour without even noticing. That cannot happen. Not today.

We’re exchanging gifts at my parents’ apartment tonight, no matter who wins the game, and then my wife and I plan to take the kids on a sunrise tour of Manhattan on Christmas morning, re-creating an event from out of our own Christmas past.

Christmas 1998, I brought my wife, who was then my girlfriend, to my parents’ house for the holiday for the first time. She worked as a flight attendant back then and she got a call on Christmas Eve commanding her to JFK by 6 a.m. We awoke before dawn in Morristown, NJ for the drive to the airport, and we passed through a deserted cityscape as the sun grew large over the urban sprawl. The streets were quiet, apocalyptic even, and we saw not a single car on the Harlem River Drive.

Even New York City takes time off for Christmas.

Afterwards we’ll head out to New Jersey to gather with the extended family like my people have been doing for a hundred years: my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. My sisters are here as well — it is the only time all year the three of us are together, and we still torment each other like we’re in grade school, a comfortable pattern into which my own children are settling. I hope they are as fortunate as I — that they get to tease each other for many Christmases to come.

But before all that, I still have a few names left on my own Christmas list.

Shopping on Long Island is like playing soccer against Brazilians, a competition in which I am hopelessly outmatched by people who were born to play the game. They’ll swipe my parking spot, box me out of the checkout line, pay less for the same merchandise while I’m just trying to make sure not to leave my packages behind and find my car in the lot when it’s all through.

The energy is part of it, the frantic planning and execution, and so is the wanton consumption — of food, drink, merchandise — that I generally deplore until I come around at just about this time every year. Giving is what it’s about, after all, these token gestures that cement our bonds and, not inconsequentially, give our economy its annual shot of commercially fueled steroids.

But my Christmas is also about a place — this one, with these people, at this time. I love it here, now. And I always will.

At the end of the first quarter, the Jets are up 7-0. My coffee is drained, the sun is getting high in that pale, blue sky and I’ve got to get a move on. I’m at 750 words or so, maybe a little short for a column, but this Christmas, that is more than enough.