The Kooks were playing tonight at the Music Box in Hollywood. But instead of driving to Hollywood and listening to the super-awesome band that I’m kind of in love with right now… I went to the City of Brea’s Tree-Lighting Ceremony at the Civic Center. I had found out about the Kooks concert earlier this week, arranged a babysitter, and had even gone so far as to email someone who was selling a ticket… and then yesterday, I realized. Tonight was the night Connor’s elementary school choir was singing at the tree ceremony. Sigh. So I un-did the babysitter, un-did the arrangement to buy the ticket from craigslist guy, and mentally prepared myself for an evening of wholesome community entertainment.
After work, I picked up Connor from school, and off we went—white shirt & jeans, santa hat in hand. Parked in the Target parking lot, and walked across the street to the Civic Center where they were holding the ceremony. The whole thing felt utterly suburban and pedestrian. I sat down, alone, while Connor headed over to the herd of short people in santa hats. It was cold. I was cold. The seat beside me was empty. I made a phone call, but nobody answered. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes real tight.
And then, something happened. There was an old man.
“Is anybody saving these seats?” the old man said, gesturing to the row of seats behind mine.
“No,” I said. “I think somebody just put down programs on all the seats earlier.”
“OK,” he said, and sat down.
We made a little bit of small talk. He told me about how he used to have a Corvette. He would drive it all up & down Birch street. Back then, in the 50s, he told me, they used to have drag races on this street because it was nothing but fields.
“Of course, then I had to get rid of the Corvette,” he said.
“I was stupid & got my girlfriend pregnant,” he said.
“Oh… oh dear,” I said.
“Yeah, had to sell it to pay for the kid.”
At this point, a woman and a tween girl came up next to him.
“Why are you sitting there?” the woman said, with a tonal quality not entirely unlike a cat being strangled. “I don’t wanna sit there. I wanna sit on the end. Move,” she said.
The old man rolled his eyes at me, privately. “My daughter,” he mouthed. “Ah,” I said.
They ended up changing seats, and moving to the row I was sitting on. There was an empty seat between me and the old man.
“Are you expecting anyone else?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said. I moved chairs to sit next to the old man. There was still an empty seat beside me, but I didn’t feel alone anymore.
“Are you here alone?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “My boy’s in the school choir over there.” I pointed.
We talked a little bit more. What do you do. Where are you from, etc.
“I was born in Sacramento, then lived in Vegas for a while,” I said.
“Oh yeah?” he said. “Las Vegas… you know, Las Vegas was settled by the Mormons, that’s my church. The Mormons,” he said.
“Yes. Yes it was,” I said. “The Mormons…” I said. “You still Mormon?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I went in & out a few times over the years. Used to smoke and drink and get into all kinds of trouble. But not anymore.”
“Are you married?” I asked. It might have been too soon for that question. I can never tell.
“Twice,” he said.
“Yeah. Barely hangin’ on,” he said. “The wife’s not happy. Says she’d divorce me, but what do you do at this age? We’ve got my Social Security, and my retirement, and we’ve got a roof over our head, so…” he trailed off. “Of course, she controls all my money now, so I joke with her & tell her that if she were to divorce me, at least I’d get half of my money back.”
“Wow.” I paused. “You don’t like each other anymore?”
“I like her,” he said. “She’s just such a grump, you know?”
At that point, the mayor or some other public figure got up and said we were just about ready to start. Then the santa hats herded over to the risers… and… then… magic. Magic happened. They started to sing. And dance. And their eyes were bright, and their cheeks were red, and their faces were the faces of the utterly untroubled. Faces of the future. The lighting on the kids made them kind of glow, in the blackness of the outdoor December night. Each head topped with a blur of the brightest red. And in that moment, I knew. There was nowhere in the world I would rather have been tonight then sitting right there. Watching, while a dozen little futures sang Christmas songs into the open air.
After the kids sang, a quartet of local pastors sang a few songs. And then, the mayor (or whoever he was), said, “It hasn’t snowed in Brea since 1949. That’s 62 years without snow… but I bet if all the kids wish real hard, and we all sing this song, maybe we could make it snow here in Brea.” Let it Snow, we sang. And then… there was snow. From the top of the library building rained down a thousand little sparkly bubbles. The kids went crazy. It was like… Christmas.
At the end of the night, I put a hand on the arm of the old man. I looked in his eyes. “It was really nice to meet you tonight,” I said. “I’m often really lonely here,” I said.
Connor came back from the group of kids. He had a handful of bubbles in his hands. He turned his rosy cheeks and bright eyes and untroubled smile toward me and said, “I feel really happy inside right now.”
So do I, Connor.