Christmas in NoHo
The rain had been falling steadily for hours when Jason got off work at the Eclectic Bar and Grill, and dashed to the bus stop a block and a half down Lankershim Avenue. The Eclectic had stayed open even though it was Christmas Eve….not for diners as much as for the people in search of a cocktail to ease the discomfort of either not having any family to spend the holiday with or having family to spend the holiday with, with whom they fundamentally disagreed.. But by 10:15 there were only a few stragglers left sitting at the bar, and with a nod of thanks to the bartender and owner of the joint, Jason hung up his server apron, waved a Merry Christmas to the men at the bar, and slipped out the door. Jason didn’t really think of himself as a waiter. Like half of the wait staff in restaurants in LA, Jason was just waiting tables on the side while hustling for his first big break in “The Industry” or at least a role with more than 3 lines and that paid. [The other half of LA waiters are screenwriters looking for the same thing.] Jason had been pretty lucky since he came out to LA two years before….he had scored several commercials, even a couple of infinitesimal speaking roles in T.V. series, but even though he was a good lucking guy with a kind of rugged-wholesome, square-jawed, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, just-blew-in-across the prairie-from-South-Dakota kind of look, and he kept working the auditions and even got picked up by an agent, he still hadn’t landed anything in a movie. So he kept waiting tables at the Eclectic Grill, and kept his eye on the next opportunity.
But as he dashed down Lankershim in the rain at 10:20pm on Christmas Eve, he was keeping his eye on the bus that he was hoping to catch to take him back to the apartment he shared with a roommate in Valley Village. Not that he was in any real hurry to get home. His roommate, who worked a stable IT job in a post-production studio in Burbank—which made him a very desirable roommate indeed because he could always pay the rent on time—had gone back East to visit his family. All that awaited Jason in the apartment were his weights, a yoga mat, a futon, his laptop, a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal, a six-pack of Anchor Steam in the fridge, the string of colored lights he hung up around the living room window to approximate Christmas, and the package that had arrived the day before from his mom and his sister back in South Dakota. Jason didn’t have the funds to fly back home this year for Christmas, and his mom who was a nurse had to work a Christmas shift—so they all agreed that this year they would just have to celebrate via Skype on Christmas morning. Jason dashed through the rain, slipped under the shelter at the bus stop, and stood—little rivulets of rainwater flowing down his face and the back of his neck. He looked over his shoulder. No bus. He shivered slightly, and rolled the sleeves of his shirt down and buttoned them over the start of a colorful geometric sleeve tattoo on his left forearm. The tattoo was a recent addition—he wasn’t getting much acting work anyway, and maybe the tat would make him more distinctive. And besides he liked it. It made him feel less South Dakota and more LA.
Jason looked again up the street for the bus, nothing, sighed, and turned to sit down on one of the two spots on the bench at the bus stop. But Jason hesitated. Someone was already sitting down, a middle aged man in a too big zipper jacket and jeans and yellow Nike shoes with a large red rolling suitcase standing in front of him. Jason took a moment to evaluate: was this some guy headed to the Van Nuys Fly-Away bus stop to catch a Christmas Eve redeye to visit his mother? Or one of the thousands of homeless trying to survive on the streets of LA? Jason wasn’t sure, and shivered again. The cold rain decided for him. Jason sat down, nodding hello to the man with the suitcase, who nodded back and tried to make himself and his suitcase just a little smaller so that Jason would have room out of the rain.
A few minutes went by, and neither one said anything. They just communicated with telling glances up the street, a shake of the head, and a shrug of shoulders. The man with the suitcase broke the silence, “Merry Christmas,” he said. “Thanks,” Jason answered, “same to you.” “Some night to get stuck at a bus stop,” the man with the suitcase continued, “it being Christmas….and raining.” Jason nodded and sang softly: “It never rains in California, but girl, don't they warn ya?” The man in the too-big jacket chimed in with a buttery bass voice: “It pours, man, it pours.” It was one of those uncool jokes that newcomers to Southern California from places called Coeur d’Alene and Rapid City make. “I’m Jason.” “Names Albert,” the man with the buttery voice and suitcase said. “Been waiting long?” Jason continued. “Most of my life,” Albert answered. “I mean for the bus,” Jason explained. “Oh, maybe an hour,” Albert said. Jason let out a whistle: “Sheesh.” And pulled out his phone, debating whether or not the bank account linked via debit card to his Uber app had enough money in it to cover a Christmas Eve fare home. Probably not, Jason thought, and put the phone back in his pocket.
Meanwhile, Albert reached into one of the pockets of his jacket and pulled out a handful of Hershey’s kisses wrapped in green and red and silver foil. “Would you like one?,” Albert offered to Jason politely before helping himself. “No thanks,” Jason answered quickly, and then watched Albert take one, unwrap it carefully, and slip the chocolate into his mouth. Jason’s stomach rumbled. “Actually,” Jason said, “could I have one after all?” Albert reached back into his pocket, pulled out a fresh handful and handed some to Jason, “take two.” “Where did you get them?” Jason asked….wary again….Albert looked at Jason and then pointed over his shoulder past the back of the bus stop. Jason turned to look as Albert said, “from the church.” “They gave out presents yesterday.” Jason turned further and looked at the building behind them. He had taken the bus from this bus stop hundreds of times in the past two years and had never even noticed. Jason started to blush. His grandfather on his mother’s side had been a Lutheran pastor in Sioux Falls. He had died when Jason was young. But still when Jason moved out to California, every time he talked to his mom on the phone she would suggest….nicely…why don’t you look up a church…might help you meet some nice people, make some friends. But after about 6 months of him saying “sure mom….good idea” but not doing anything about it, she stopped. He bet, though, that she kept on praying that one day he would find a church. Which is why he blushed now as he looked over at the church behind the bus stop. It looked a lot like the churches he knew back home—A-frame church with an office and an entrance and some buildings on the side. And this being the Christmas season, there were wreaths on the front doors and a nativity scene set up in one of the windows. Jason squinted over at the sign and laughed. It was a Lutheran church. As Jason looked over, suddenly one of the front doors opened, and out stepped a woman who held the door open with one hand and held the other out palm up as if to test the velocity of the rain. She shook the pool of water that had collected quickly in her hand, shook her head slowly, and stepped back into the building, shutting the door again.
Jason turned back around and sat facing forward, unwrapping and eating the second Hershey’s kiss from Albert when he realized he hadn’t noticed a young woman had slipped into the bus stop too, a young woman with a blue head scarf tied over her long, shiny-thick black hair, carrying a messenger bag with “SOCHI”—Southern California Health Institute--written on the side. She stood a little apart from the men, looking at her watch, and yawned. Albert stood up, wheeled his suitcase to the side, and addressed the young woman with the headscarf. “Wouldn’t you like to sit down, miss?” Jason blushed again. Why hadn’t he thought of that? “Thank you,” the young woman said, with a light accent that Jason couldn’t quite place. She sat down next to him. “Merry Christmas,” Jason said to the woman as she settled into the seat. “Thank you,” she said, “but I don’t celebrate Christmas.” Jason blushed again. The young woman smiled at him, and pointed to her head scarf. “I’m from Turkey.” “Cool,” Jason said, “I once had to change planes in Istanbul.” “It’s a beautiful city, it is where I was born,“ she continued. “Cool,” Jason said again…desperately unable to think of anything more charming to say. “I’m Jason, I am from Sioux Falls….that’s not quite as cool.” She smiled, and looked over at him and said, “My name is Meryiam, nice to meet you.”
As Albert, Jason and Meryiam sat and stood in the bus stop in front of the church waiting for the bus, people in twos and threes came down the alley along the side of the church and parted ways with hugs and calls of Merry Christmas and the occasional Happy Hanukkah. Jason furrowed his brow. Albert gestured to the figures disappearing into the rain and explained: “AA.” “Right,” Jason nodded, and almost blushed again as he thought of the six-pack of Anchor Steam in his fridge. One last figure came down the alley, a woman, blonde, in her 50’s, well dressed, in a skirt and heels, carrying an umbrella. She tried to dodge the puddles that had gathered on the sidewalk as she walked past the bus-stop and stopped next to a white Mercedes sedan. “Real Estate agent I would guess,” said Albert, as he watched her open her purse and search for her keys while balancing the umbrella on her shoulder with her chin. “Damn it!” the three waiting for the bus heard her say as she stamped one of her high-heeled sandals spraying water across the sidewalk, as she peered into the window of her car. “How could I have been so stupid!” she said loudly as she looked around for someone to help her. She looked back toward the alley for someone she knew, shook her head. She looked over at the three in the bus stop who were now all looking at her. She walked over to three: “Can you believe it! I’ve locked my keys in my car, and my phone is out of juice, can I borrow your phone to call AAA?” “This time Jason was first to help, handing the older woman his phone while she looked through her wallet for her AAA card. “Thanks,” she said,..”what’s your name?” “Jason,” “I’m Albert,” “I’m Miryem,” the other voices in the bus stop echoed. The woman in the high-heals said: “Umm…..my name is Pamela….and I am a real estate agent.” Albert looked at Jason, raised his eyebrows and shrugged “See.”
While Pamela was negotiating with AAA to get a lock specialist out on this Christmas Eve sometime before the second coming, Jason noticed the doors of the church open up again, this time both doors. And this time two women came out, looked up and down the sidewalk, looked at the sky, looked at the rain, and shook their heads. Jason could just overhear the first woman say: “This is Southern California, no one goes out when it rains, not even on Christmas Eve. I just got an email from Larry and Sam, they aren’t coming to the 11 O’Clock service either, and they were supposed to tell the Christmas story.” The other woman looked sympathetically at the first and replied, ‘that means we are down three—the two readers…..and the soloist, Sarah came down with a bad cold.” “Make that four,” the first woman responded while looking at her phone: “I just got a text from Eric, he can’t make it either—there goes the assisting minister…..well” she continued laughing lightly, at least we still have a preacher and an organist!” It wasn’t till that moment that Jason realized that the woman who had opened the doors had a little tab of white on the collar of her black shirt. The woman was a pastor! He had heard of such things back in South Dakota, but growing up he had never actually met one. “Cool…” Jason found himself saying again under his breath. He could hear a faint ding on the pastor’s phone, “Number 5 and 6: no Beverly, no Angela—so no usher and acolyte.”
Jason looked up the street: “and no bus” he said. Pamela moved closer under the bus stop roof, handed Jason his phone with a “thank you” and asked the three: “So what are you waiting here for?” Pamela asked the three. “The Bus!” they said in unison. “But there are no more busses tonight,” Pamela said, “it’s after 10 and it’s Christmas Eve.” The three looked at one another. Then Jason looked over at the pastor and the organist still standing in the doorway of the church, and then back at his damp, huddled comrades in the bus stop. “I have an idea,” Jason said, “why don’t we go into the church and think of some other solution…they’re open.” Two agreed, Miryem was a little reluctant, “I think I better just call my brother to come and get me.” “Please don’t leave yet,” Jason asked gently. Jason the tattooed actor, Albert the polite homeless man with the big red suitcase, Pamela, the high-heeled real estate agent and Miryem with her blue headscarf bringing up the rear walked over to the front door of the church. “Merry Christmas!, “Jason said, “are you having a service? We were waiting for the bus and none came and its raining. May we wait in the church and figure out our next steps?” The pastor smiled and answered,”Well, we are supposed to have a service at 11pm, but with the rain, we don’t know who will show….But sure…of course…..come in….and dry off.” The four bus-stop friends walked into the church entrance that was bathed in soft light and decorated with signs that proclaimed: peace on earth! “My grandfather was a Lutheran pastor,” Jason said to the woman with the white tab on her collar. “You don’t say!,” she responded. “But I haven’t been to church in a long time,” Jason confessed. “Well,” said the pastor, “I am glad the rain brought you here now. Welcome, welcome to you all.” “I am wondering,” the pastor continued, “by any chance do you think you four could help us out tonight. All the people who were supposed to come and help are staying home because of the rain.” The squad from the bus-stop was silent for a moment. “Any of you singers?,” the pastor pressed on. “Not me,” Jason said. “You definitely don’t want me to sing” answered Pamela. Miryem just shook her head scarf. “I’m a musician,” Albert with the big red suitcase said. “I may be homeless, but I’m a musician. Play guitar and banjo and sing. Used to have a band in New Orleans before Katrina and the floods and I moved to LA and all hell broke loose (pardon my language).” “Terrific,” said the pastor, “Albert, go over to our pianist Cathy and find a Christmas carol you could sing as a solo. Jason, suddenly remembering he was an aspiring actor offered, “I could read the lessons, if that would help.” “Great,” answered the pastor, and then turned to Pamela, “how about you?” “Well,” Pamela thought, “I could maybe usher…….and serve the grape juice if you have it,” and in way of explanation Pamela silently mouthed the letters “AA” to the pastor, and the pastor nodded with a smile and understanding. “I’m Muslim,“ Miryem said, “I don’t think there is anything that I could do to help.” The pastor thought a moment…..”well, could you greet people as they come in---if anyone comes in—and hand them a bulletin and a candle?” “I guess I could do that,” Miryem said.
And so, a few minutes before 11pm, the four visitors who had come in out of the rain took their places in the church. As Miryem stood in the entrance, an older woman with a walker entered into the church building “My it is wet,” the older woman said, “but it is still Merry Christmas!” Miryem nodded, smiled and handed the older woman a bulletin and a candle. “I just love your blue headscarf, dear,” the older woman said to Miryem, “you look just like the picture of Mary in my first Bible.” Miryem didn’t quite know what to say to that, so she just nodded and held the door for the woman to enter the sanctuary and take a seat. Two men came in, stomped the rain off their feet laughing, and greeted Miryem. “I’m Frank and this is my husband Merv.” Frank noticed Miryem’s blue headscarf and said, “I’m the congregation president, and I don’t think we’ve ever met.” Miryem answered, “um—I’m just visiting….Muslim- Christian solidarity in challenging times.” Frank leaned in, took hold of MIryem’s hand and with soft eyes twice said “bless you,” before walking into the sanctuary. Miryem added at their disappearing backs: “And it was raining.”
The service began, the pastor welcomed the stalwart people of faith with a Merry Christmas, and proclaimed the promises of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Jason read the story of the birth of Jesus, and shared the angels’ promise: “Do not be afraid!” as if he, and not Ryan Gosling, were co-starring in Emma Stone’s next film. Albert sang “Oh Holy Night” like a deep-voiced angel pouring God’s love on the world like syrup on pancakes. And Pamela held out the cup with grape juice and said the “blood of Christ, shed for you” with a joy that left everyone at the altar smiling. And when it came time to turn out the lights and light the candles and sing Silent Night, the pastor could see that even Miryem held up a lit candle while the small congregation sang of “love’s pure light.” As the service ended, the older lady with the walker left, and the organist left amid calls of Merry Christmas, and Frank and Merv left, but not before they promised Miryem that they would visit her mosque on a Friday afternoon early in the new year, and not before they found Albert and heaped praise upon him, and Frank took hold of Albert’s hand and said: “honey, you’ve just got to come back and sing with the choir!.” The four friends from the bus stop hugged the pastor, hugged one another, and stepped outside the church just as a bus sped by the bus stop.
Then they saw the AAA locksmith leaning against Pamela’s white Mercedes, grinning and dangling her key chain in his hand. “Looking for these?,” he said as he tossed the keys into Pamela’s hands. “Come on,” Pamela called out to her Christmas Eve companions, “I’ll take you all home!” Miryem slipped into the front passenger seat, and Jason into the driver’s side rear. Only Albert stood on the sidewalk with his suitcase and said “I don’t have a home you can take me to.” Pamela looked at Albert with eyes as damp as the glistening street and said. “Albert, get on in, I know a room in a building, where you can stay tonight. It is safe, and dry. It is Christmas.” So Albert carefully stowed his suitcase in the trunk, and got in the car. As they drove west along Riverside Boulevard, with the windshield wipers slowly keeping time….Miryem could be heard singing softly….”glory streams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace.” And Jason finished the verse an octave lower: “Christ the Savior is born, Christ the savior is born.” And he didn’t even blush.
And that is Christmas in NoHo.