cold

I walked outside after dark and it smelled like Christmas. Last year, coming home from a late dinner downtown, Thomas and I thought something was horribly wrong - up ahead a few blocks there was a parade of cop cars, sirens screaming and lights blurring colors, a visible emergency. It was just after midnight. We inched toward them, the familiar bystanders’ dance at a crisis, a nervous, obligated curiosity. Then the screaming cars roared past us, more slowly than we expected, and we saw that the darkness between them, taking up all three lanes on Columbus avenue, was a huge flatbed truck, the sort of vehicle used for logging, the kind you’d expect to see on a freeway, or driving through mountains. On the long bed of the truck, and even longer than it, hanging off it at a length and size that seemed to be approximately that of a city block, was one single gigantic, felled Christmas tree, a perfect picture-book triangle of trunk and fir branches. The truck tore on downtown, guarded by a blue and red constellation of threatening lights. The next day, I read that that year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree had just arrived from upstate. We had witnessed the end of its long southbound journey out of mundanity and darkness. It was one more of the small, strange, lit up events the city offers, the tree like a hallucination, devoured by the darkening avenues, brought in to offer a visible reason to exclaim about something, the city inventing something upon which to rejoice. 

Here is the season of miracles, in all its awful glitter and obligation, arriving like a laugh track or like a bad joke waiting for one. Each year it returns, the trees from upstate in stands on street corners, the insistence on something to celebrate, on reasons to hang up lights and gaze up at them with awed faces. Despite everything that has fallen short and disappointed since the last time, the city’s decorations go up again, lights strung between blocks over the intersections, proclaiming the names of the neighborhoods in white and red and green, making a wreath out of road signs. 

The cold works like a page-break and a last call. The dark feels awful, and urgent, making the few hours of daylight at once vividly meaningful and pointless. Bodies crowd into bars and homes, bookstores and restaurants, in the early dark on weekdays in December, in this month that feels like an eternal Friday. It’s just a held breath before nothing matters, shutting down the year as though it were the last hour in a bar, when the bartender locks the doors and turns on the overhead lights and counts soggy paper money, the last chance before we all go home. 

I haven’t written about New York in a long time because it’s never in my life felt more immoral, more stupidly removed from reality, to love a city, to naively find something redemptive or magical in it. The city strings up holiday banners like cut glass knives that blink and sputter at once into diamonds, cracking out bright points of light in the cold. This is the weather when people freeze on benches and in doorways. New York is an amusement park whose theme is its past self and whose curators sweep up bodies at dawn. I don’t know how to say out loud that it is meaningful to live here, that what I find beautiful could be anything other than a way to underline my own culpability, the unconscionable softness of my life. That line about being willing to be lucky is a bloodthirsty sentence. This city is another belief system, another faith, and it is as corrupt and untrustworthy as any organized religion. It offers to make all things cohere and sing together, so that the dark cold end of the year is not merely dark and cold but is instead a reason to celebrate. It turns the real dangers of the cold into a time to look forward to, a reward for all the other months plodding unmarked down the calendar. The cold is merely a way to make ourselves bright and interesting, every dark room crowded full of candles.

The miracles persist, as if they know they have more to make up for. There is nothing moral, or kind, about the miraculous. The best thing about public celebrations is something very different than what these rituals think they are selling. The tree at Rockefeller Center, the spangled neighborhood street signs, the antique shop on Amsterdam avenue that the weekend after Thanksgiving becomes a gloriously tacky Christmas store, stuffed full of ornaments, spangled angels and fruits and santa clauses and sleds and dinosaurs, christ children and martini glasses both made of out of the same sequins with a string looped in the back— the best thing about any of this is that it has no interest in our individuality. Whatever emotions this time of year in this wildly manipulative city invites are not about myself and my own small experiences. These feelings do not originate with me or belong to me; I have no claim on them. I cannot earn or deserve these feelings when they are available to anyone who walks within the radius of where the lights extends. The blessing both of holidays and of cities is to remind us that we are not special. The holidays feel overwhelmingly personal, but perhaps the best thing about them is that they are not personal at all.

These naive and knee-jerk holiday reactions wipe out ambition, turn down the volume on the need to be chosen and rewarded. The good thing about this time of year is the way in which we all disappear within it, how it filters out the ruthless individuality of work and success, of office and awards. The end of the year turns instead to the undifferentiated collectives of friendship and family and homecoming, of warmth and gathering, the unseen and unpraised record of days off and days inside. It is the soft comforts of the lumbering body with its unspectacular wants, the unmade bed at 2pm with coffee cups discarded next to it, the long walk from the couch to the kitchen and back again. It raises up the luxuries of our useless selves, that which burrows for warmth, the unsharable days. 

It doesn’t matter if I have an emotional reaction to the nubbly, awkward star that sits up over the intersection at 81st street, at bumbling angles to the stoplight when the cars dive through the turn at the corner. It doesn’t matter at all that the Rockefeller Center tree, unadorned and unknown, sleeping on its side on a flatbed trunk, drives down Columbus from upstate some time between midnight and one in the morning each same weekend of the year; it doesn’t matter that after fifteen years in the city I happen to be walking home at the exact right moment to see it. If what we require of miracles is visible and permanent transformation, then this time of year is useless - look to the unnamed days of January and February, the worst and most unloved times of year, when we do the grinding, self-loathing work of actual change, when all the holidays die down to work days, when we are productive and grumbling and things get planted, and made, and resolved. 

Now, parties bloom in sweaty rooms with the cold outside, another version of the lights strung up over the intersections yelling the names of the neighborhoods. Indoors seems smaller because it is in greater demand, and at the height of a good party in the middle of December, the walls of a room bulge, barely containing the noise and bodies within. It’s hard to hear anyone; it’s easy to say yes to things, to stop thinking about oneself, to declare love for people we’ve only met a few times, to feel for a few moments that anything could happen, to get swept away. Our anxious individuality dims when we can barely hear ourselves within the crowd; we become for a handful of minutes just a part of a bright churn of everyone else’s emotions, all the same repetitive things about warmth and last chances and celebrations, all the same drunk end-of-the-night resolve to see each other more, all the same messy, welcome confessions. What this celebrant time of year offers us is the chance to recapture that unspecialness, to reclaim our unimportance, the way a good party is the exact opposite of a cover letter. At its meager best, this is what the city does too, sweeping each of us briefly up in something larger than ourselves, some collective and pointless emotion that offers the chance to not have to be special, the small gift of departure, and forgetfulness, the obliterative lights driving a huge tree downtown to be reborn.