A New York Christmas on Grafton Street
You begin to realise that you belong somewhere when it strikes you, only on the odd occasion, that you come from somewhere else. By Colum McCann.
Drunk and sober, high and low, off and on, up and down, New York has been my city for 12 years now. I still don't know it properly and I probably never will. It's a vast mystery to me, like it is to most New Yorkers, how this ugly lovely town became my lovely ugly town. It's a gorgeous rubbish heap of a place: rude and brash, loud and anarchic, unforgiving and raw, mercenary, greedy, generous, speculative and selfish. It has none of the style of Paris. None of the beauty of Rome. None of the elegance of old-time London. None of the grand, grey irony of Dublin. But that hardly matters. New York is a city of the timeless, where there is no order and there is no end.
Coming up to Christmas, one always gets a little nostalgic for the town you live in. Maybe it's because every Christmas now is full of every Christmas then. Memory has a sort of echo effect. There is plenty that happens in the city of New York to keep everyone – tourists and New Yorkers alike – busy.
There are the lights on the trees all the way along Park Avenue. There are the carols in the Episcopal church on 92nd Street, when the locals spill out into the streets and the traffic is stopped and some of the drivers blow their horns in sing-song melody. There's the giant tree at Rockefeller Centre: just watch a child's face when they see it. There's a huge snowflake over Times Square. There's the Naked Cowboy on 42nd Street, wearing only his underwear and a Santa hat. There are the spectacular displays in the windows of Lord & Taylor, Macy's, Bloomingdale's. There are small side-streets lit up by locals, with lights strung up and down the telegraph poles. Houses in Gramercy Park with all sorts of Christmas icons hung on the front gate. Trees in the lobbies of every apartment building. Wreaths hung over the necks of the stone lions at the New York Public Library.
For those who want it, there's the shopping, the crazed crowds along Fifth Avenue (full of Irish accents these days), the oddball stalls in Bryant Park, the strange bakeries that will make you an erotic-shaped Christmas cake, the small shops in the Village, even the tailor on Lexington Avenue who will sew a piece of mistletoe into your hat... all for a fee of course.
It even seems that – given the greed that's on display for the rest of the year – the city has a heart. There are toy drives. Salvation Army buckets full of coins. Charity vans roaming around with dinners for the homeless. Spontaneous gestures of good faith.
And there's the cold too – the wind that cuts through you and makes you aware of the warmth when you get home.
But that's the funny thing, isn't it? Home. One is always aware of the word “home” come Christmas time.
And, much as I love New York, when the end of the year rolls around I am always brought back to a Dublin Christmas. And not just those of my childhood, when the world was bright and full and cheery, but the extraordinary ordinariness of those lovely Christmas Eve afternoons, in my late teens and early 20s, when I would walk down Grafton Street, still not sure what I would get my brothers and sisters for a present, counting the 50-pence pieces in my pockets, staring in the window of Golden Discs, as it was then, and crossing the street to Switzers, as it was then, and a quick coffee in Bewley's, as it was then, and then another stroll along the backstreets, as they were then, where the rubbish seemed to spar in the alleyways, and where I would pull my naff scarf up against the cold, and duck into Neary's or Toners for a pint in the middle of the afternoon, when new friends became old friends, and I knew perfectly well that the afternoon would wile away until five, when I would emerge again in the heroic last half-hour dash down Grafton Street in the cold, as it was then, to find what I knew I would buy all along.
And so, these days, when I walk through New York on Christmas Eve, for all its riches and charms, I'm really back on Grafton Street, as it was then, at least in the small warm fire of memory.