According to Garrison Keillor, Hans Christian Andersen did not plan on being a children’s author. He wanted to write plays. He didn’t like children. He was afraid of being accidentally buried alive and so left a note on his bedside table that read, “I’m only sleeping.”
A mom could do with a note that says, “Yes, I am asleep.”
My children sort of liked H.C.A., but they didn’t trust him. We found “The Little Mermaid,” with the bleeding feet and the harshness of being without a home, disturbing, too sad. “The Tin Solider,” depressing. But a couple of years ago we got a nicely illustrated version of “The Snow Queen” and the story of the childhood friendship rent apart, the boy’s delusion and the girl’s journey to rescue him, made for a good read.
After this rather pithy and hilarious recap of H.C.A.’s life, we were then treated to a modern dramatization of “The Ugly Duckling,” (we had a Ladybird Read-it-Yourself version), which was not particularly funny and other than the concept–talking ducks!–didn’t seem to be going anywhere. As we drove, our connections to public radio slid from one university town to another. We picked up the overlapping segments of popular shows, but we never got to the end of the Duckling remake. Maybe it turned into something new and equal to the introduction, but I didn’t hear it.
As we drove along we kept seeing this sign: “Give ’em a brake. HARD at work.” Okay, I’m immature, but that made me laugh. And why the capitalization?
Also: a hand-lettered sign in the back window of station wagon that read, “Caution: Wedding Cakes.” Will they attack? And what’s with the aggressive drivers in Pennsylvania?
The Merritt Parkway was like going back in time to the golden age of the automobile. You drive through a mature bower of trees, two lanes in each direction. The right-hand lane is in a continual state of entering and exiting cars. Gas stations sit right next to the road so that you pull over in the jittery speed of a silent movie sequence of a ballroom full of flappers dancing the Charleston. Where’s the carhops? Where’s Gatsby? Cars shoot in from merge lanes. It’s mayhem.
And if you were planning to spend the night in the olden days and have martinis for dinner, you could stay at the Hi-Ho, don’tcha know.
Our main objective driving between Pennsylvania and Connecticut was to avoid NYC, a black hole of traffic slowness and tailbacks. On I-95 we sit in the mire that traps people in their suburbs or forces them onto the train. The city is like a death star, sucking them in, slowly releasing them on its collection of bridges and tunnels, its crawling toll plazas. And it winnows them out. You prefer Saturday on the tidy Main Street of your affluent bedroom community, go on then.
Having grown up in Greenwich Village, a block from 8th Street, teen girl shoe mecca, with a bead shop, Postermat, Pop’s Candy Shop (sex jokes writ in stale chocolate), Orange Julius, head shops (I could not understand how a shop that was all about selling everything but the illegal drugs themselves could be legal, I mean I understood that technically it was was legal, but it seemed to point to hypocrisy in our society, man), I know there is an endless supply of of people coming into the city to catch a whiff of edginess.
How this for a headline in today’s local paper: “Lady Gaga fans join trend of nonconformity.”
That was 8th Street in the 80s. A Fieldston boy turned club kid drag model I knew in college described its shoppers as Mickey Flipsters, an amalgamation of Flip, an 8th Street trend factory with a small, bad selection of vintage clothes, and the pop hit with the line “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey, Mickey!”
And I read the story in case the headline was ironic. It wasn’t.
We didn’t even tell people within we were coming up their way. What would they do with us and our dog and our car and our children. It would be like a bad remake of The Out-of-Towners.
My children’s knowledge of Hans Christian Andersen came in handy two Christmases ago, when we had trundled ourselves over to Fortnum & Mason to do a bit of shopping for nice things to give friends in America. I love the idea of the hamper, the idea of violet creams, though more than one piece of shortbread and you wish you hadn’t.
I miss the bacchanal of British Christmas, which starts on the 5th of November with the illumination of the lights on Oxford Street and and runs to the conclusion of the panto season in January. It’s so dark. You need sparkly things and rich food to cheer and fortify. I miss the Ginger Pig’s seasonal foie gras and pheasant pies, the hunks of Colston Bassett Stilton from Neal’s Yard, the spirit and the spirits, and, as an American, the confusion of one hymn sung to the tune of another, plus the addition of “Once in Royal David’s City,” “Do They Know it’s Christmas,” sung by Year 6, and, of course, Slade, screamingly heralding the season.
We used to have to lay in supplies. Stores would not just close for Christmas Day as they do here, but for Boxing Day and the adjacent Sunday. Restaurants and transport were closed, too. You could starve or run out of butter. Inevitably, several times in the season, I would find myself at the foot of Regent Street, at 10 p.m. (that’s late for me), my feet cold and sore at the end of a long day in proper shoes, waiting for a bus because at that point in the day, with my Oyster Card, the journey was free, taxis expensive and possibly scarce. Weighing up the pros and cons of getting on the bus that had arrived but would turn towards Lisson Grove versus waiting for the one that stopped at my corner but might never arrive.
You’d think that at least on the bus you would be left alone to your thoughts with the lights to enjoy in a silent reverie but in fact the upper deck was harshly lit and the windows fogged with breath so that you were trapped in bus misery with the chatter of mobile phone conversations. It was never so late in the evening that I was condemned to the Night Bus. We learned that lesson one night a long, long time ago, leaving Fulham for Hampstead at 1 a.m., a night which involved two night buses, a kebab shop, a minicab dispatch station, a Dickensian trudge, two night buses and a gypsy cab in Piccadilly Circus.
Department store windows were one of my favorite features of a New York City Christmas, the best being at Lord & Taylor, where dressed mice trimmed trees and hedgehogs waltzed; Tiffany, with minutely detailed scenes of a story or a song would incorporate jewels; and the Scandinavian Airlines office in Rockefeller Center, where they would build enormous scenes out of Lego, all of which I found extremely compelling as both entertainment and a possible career.
I learned this summer that there are now a number of professional Lego artists. We saw a Lego Mark Twain at his house in Hartford and a Lego rain forest at the Philadelphia Zoo, where the same artist (Sean Kenney) had earlier built life-sized zoo animals. I heard something on the radio about someone else (Wayne Peltz) being commissioned to create Lego portraits of professional athletes. Did I miss my calling?
I just assumed that London would have Christmas windows, that it was a basic thing department stores everywhere did. But they don’t. London windows were a big disappointment. I got over it but it was something I had wanted to be able to share with my daughters. Harvey Nichols and Selfridges tried, but they were too fashion-oriented or too conceptual, and Christmas, as a festive season, is not about fashion, good taste or deep thought; Christmas is flashy, nostalgic and emotional.
It took us a few minutes to work out that Fortnum’s windows depicted the story of “The Snow Queen,” which we retold to a puzzled viewer who was not familiar with the story and not sure whether to believe us (Americans) and our interpretation. Look, it’s the mirror of distortion and bitterness! It’s the land of frozen and perpetual winter. Happy Christmas, everyone!
“I’m only sleeping,” calls to mind the 10 Russian sleeper spies who were rousted out of American suburbs this past spring. They had coded exchanges with lines like, “Haven’t we met before in California?” “No, I think it was the Hamptons.” We mentioned the tragic banality of it all to a friend the other day who, I think, misunderstood that we thought the tragedy was that they were caught or that they and their American children were expelled from America in the spy swap, but frankly it’s fair play if you’re a spy, right? No, the tragedy was that they had gone into espionage and ended up in a 20 years of post-cold war nothingness, or perhaps that the society they had sought to infiltrate had instead infiltrated them, cultural double-cross. The Russians frowned upon the purchase of a house in New Jersey, but they said it was part of the cover. Ha! You like our pleasant way of life, you Mickey Flipsters, with your pseudo insurgency.
So leave a note on the bedside table just in case, something you can produce as evidence at the interment or the extradition and hope that in the flurry of excitement whipped up by the discovery of your motionless body that it isn’t blown to the floor. Think to yourself, pushing your shopping cart down the aisle at Wal-Mart, it’s deep cover, baby. I’m not really a children’s author or a suburban housewife. You’ve got no idea who I am.