Northside SF

That was the year that was (it’s over, let it go)
There is a sweetness in the air tonight over San Francisco. I can’t resist the charms of The City when the holidays clutch me in their rough and lovely way. Gee whiz, it’s Christmas. I see people here on Nob Hill. I wander through the Marina. The December breeze tortures my hair. I see faces that anticipate everything wonderful that could be arriving. Gifts, glad tidings, connections to the heart.

How do good things arrive? Perhaps by UPS. The UPS people, by the way, are terrific contributors to the Salvation Army. Where would we be without hearing the sounds of metal hitting kettle?

Good things usually arrive through the faces of people you love. Perhaps better yet, through the faces you have never met before. Funny thing. This time of year seems to encourage us to love all sorts of persons. Up to a point, of course. The air is filled with mist tonight as I walk through Union Square. I can sense some roasted this and that. Do I smell meat cooking? Some of us are attracted to that mystery.

What mystery? The mystery that draws us to each other during the holidays. It’s odd. It’s astonishing. Some of us are driven to the quiet madness of Christmastime. It makes us want to feel things again, it makes us want to make things in the world a wee bit better. It makes us want to hold the people we love.

When I was a kid there used to be a TV show called That Was the Week That Was with a theme song of that title, and the phrase, “It’s over, let it go.” Remember Woody Allen’s Annie Hall? The Woody Allen character is berated for his cynicism with, “Give us a break, Alvie, it’s Christmas.”

When I wander up and down Nob Hill and through the Marina, I notice people don’t look as worried as I might expect. After all it’s been a year of uncertainty, turbulence, and a cascade of ghastly news. Then I think of what my parents went through – the Great Depression, World War II – little annoyances like that. But please don’t say, “See, things could be worse.” That never makes me feel better. I only think about when things will get worse. But I have no right to be a crepehanger. That’s because I see so many cheerful people, grateful for being alive in San Francisco. They’re just having fun.

I have a friend who says, “You should always have a LFT.”


“That means a “looking forward to.”

Well, this year, damn it, I’m looking forward to Christmas. Hell or high water. Someone once asked Tony Bennett what it was like to grow up during the Great Depression. To my astonishment he replied, “It was great. Everybody looked out for everybody else.” Tony is the kind of person who carries Christmas around with him every day of the year.

This year wasn’t so great for everybody. You’ve noticed there’s no snow. It was lost in the stock market. Santa’s sleigh has been repossessed. His workshop was been foreclosed on. (Yes, there are banks at the North Pole.) Santa’s elves are out of work. If they weren’t laid off, their jobs would have been outsourced to Southeast Asia anyway. Look, there’s just enough coal for the stockings that hang over the unlit fireplace. Did I say coal? How very ungreen of me. Where did that lump of coal in the stocking thing come from anyway? I’m not sure, but it sounds very Dickensian. But if a kid today gets a lump of coal in his stocking instead of an iPhone, he’ll likely be in therapy for years. Speaking of which, what does one give to the psychiatrist for Christmas? Never mind. I digress. On the topic of Christmas gifts, I once interviewed the great Jean Shepherd, who was on the radio for decades. He’d go on the air and just tell stories. He also wrote and narrated A Christmas Story, which is still played on TV everywhere during the holidays. Jean had a suggestion. This is for the people who have everything: “Get their picture on South American postage stamps.”

By the way, go to YouTube, and check out Stan Freberg’s Green Christmas.

Comedy writer Jack Douglas once went on The Dick Cavett Show to recommend “heating pads with no power cords for Christian Scientists.” Whatever it is, the giving part is the fun part of Christmas. And in this past year that was, I have encountered many generous people. Astonishingly generous, even if I deserved coal in my stocking. I imagine they will continue to be generous through the New Year, as they’ve been all along. They know what an LFT is. Gee, I wonder if the bailout of the banks, Solyndra, and things like that might be considered part of the Christmas spirit. Yes, I wonder. We are going to need good spirits this New Year. As a veteran of World War II said on PBS recently, “There were no atheists on Omaha Beach.”

Last summer Mason Williams, the composer of “Classical Gas”, and head comedy writer for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS all those years ago, sent me a CD of his band performing “The Christmas Song.” You know, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and all that. Mel Tormé used to boast that he wrote the tune in the torrid heat of July in Connecticut. But it’s true that the song is charming no matter what time of year it is.

The music is my favorite part of the Christmas season. It really doesn’t matter what month it is if it’s good. Case in point, Big Joe Williams’s Christmas album. I lost my copy, and it’s very hard to find an existing one. Back in the Beatles era, the boys would mail out one of those paper LPs (when there were turntables in every home). It was a custom performance just for the members of their fan club around the world. All improvised, there was some great stuff, particularly when John Lennon would do his lunatic monologues. They were brilliant. Later, John would write his “So You Say That It’s Christmas.” The Beatles had a real affection for the holiday.

I got the impression that the Brits love Christmas more than the Americans do in the traditional sense. This time of year I always look to see which TV station is airing Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It has to be the 1951 version, though, the one with Alastair Sim, who’s the definitive Scrooge. There’s a story that suits our time. Dickens was the master of describing the 1 percent and the 99 percent. That’s right. It’s time to Occupy Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong. Americans can “keep Christmas” very well. I knew a gal from my high school days in New Jersey. (I hope I never see snow again; well, just don’t make me shovel out the driveway.) Sometimes I’d visit Christi’s house on Christmas. With five kids running around, and two busy academic parents, there was a lot of chaos. But Christi’s father had an edict. On Christmas Eve the whole family had to sit down in one place and listen to a recording of Dylan Thomas reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Mr. Thomas certainly knew how to write a lede:

  One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

  Funny man. Christi, now a university professor herself, named her son Dylan. I look forward to the New Year. Surely it will provide a renewal of spirit. One can only hope. It will be a great Christmas. And a swell Hanukkah. The people demand it. So it is written. As for the year that was – you know what I’m going to say. Fuggedaboutit.
Bruce Bellingham can be reached by e-mail at

March 2012
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