For those who think that Christmas decorations are a matter of lassoing a few strands of lights around a tree and fixing a plastic wreath with a red bow on the front door, don’t bother to read further.
Jim Hamilton used to be a Broadway set designer. These days he focuses more on architectural design – shopping centers, interiors of restaurants and homes of the scions of society – but for Jim, The Look is everything.
Some say he even hired a manager once because he liked his look – that of a funeral undertaker. I firmly believe he hired me because he liked my (then) look. At least, at the time, he told me that I looked like a fashion plate. (That was years ago. These days I have of course gone to seed with a vengeance. The bloom has long gone from the rose.)
It was in the middle of November that I bumped into him in the lane that leads to the restaurant.
He asked me if I would do the holiday decorating at his restaurant.
“Erm. Yesnaby” I said, undecidedly.
I was flattered that he would entrust me with such a gargantuan task, but I dreaded that I would displease him.
“I want them up by Thanksgiving,” he said fixing me with a rheumy eye.
I stuttered idiotically. Greatness has this effect on me.
Monday 24th November
A summit of decorators has been scheduled.
There is Pat, an elegant woman and lifelong friend of Jim’s who decorated the restaurant for years until it became toomuch.com.
Then there is a dishwasher who has come in from Trenton, a Vietnam vet who is a local character and a server who is seeking to make additional funds to finance the petrol for her trip to Tennessee for her daughter’s graduation.
The decorations have been stored in black bin liners in the Executive Chef’s garage.
Like so many sheathed dead bodies, they have to be lugged to his truck, transported to the restaurant and then hoisted off the truck and stored in the downstairs area of the office.
There are huge – eight foot tall – arches, wreaths, swaths and more arches – all wrapped in black plastic. There are countless boxes of faux foliage, holly, baubles and berries. And there are tangles – lianas – of Christmas lights.
While the dishwasher and the Vietnam vet position the arches in the Gallery, Cindy unravels the lights, ninety-nine percent of which don’t work.
Pat and I set out to find the amber light strands that Jim wants. We are unsuccessful. After considerable deliberation we settle on mixed cream and amber strings. Some $250 worth.
Six hour day.
Tuesday 25th November
Vietnam vet is the electrical guy. He is also the guy with a transistor radio which he almost-tunes to a station that is playing heavy metal. There is lots of ACDC.
“I’ve seen these guys! I’ve seen them!” he bawls above the din. “They came out on stage like animals escaping a cage.”
I yearn for ‘Oh little town of Bethlehem,’ but I don’t want to annoy the Vet. He is temperamental and is likely to walk off the job.
Six hour day.
Wednesday 26th November
He has taken three days to complete the wiring on three arches.
Cindy and I resolved to finish the job ourselves.
It starts snowing. Not the charming filigree flakes but the large wet ones that cause the windscreen wipers of my little bug to jam.
I drive to Living Earth, a nursery and holiday accessory store that is filled with mind-wateringly beautiful stuff to make sure yours is a Christmas filled with rampant consumerism.
Plants, flowers, wreaths, poinsettias the size of dinner plates. I am in search of antique ribbons which they will make up into bows before your eyes.
When I pay the bill I understand why the locals call it
Jim’s exhortation to finish the decorating by Thanksgiving is not possible. There are five rooms and I am one person. Fiddling with fir will cut your fingertips. My thumbs are so cracked I can’t take my contacts out of my eyes.
Sunday 30th November
I have persuaded Abigail to help me with the holly garlands. While she is on the ladder the new manager comes and informs her that he is a fashion designer and interior decorator and that he has done these things himself.
We are in the presence of greatness
It is day six of decorating. My crew has lost interest. Besides they have lives to attend to.
My Pomeranians are neglected as latchkey children and my editor’s emails go unanswered.
Friday 5th December
Jim delivers the coup de main. He comes into the restaurant on Friday night and demands to see me.
He doesn’t like the white and amber lights! He wanted all amber! I explain to him that I couldn’t find amber lights in any local stores,
“If I find amber lights you’re in trouble,” he tells me.
My apartment has been bombed. I have been held up at gunpoint. Who knew that amber lights would be my coup de grâce?
Saturday 6th December
Jim calls me at the crack of nine to summon me to the restaurant to instruct me further on how to realize his vision.
I jot down frantic notes as we go from room to room.
More lights. Advent wreaths. Window boxes. A Christmas tree outside that has to be lit…
He makes quick drawings of The Look of the window boxes and The Look of the topiary that needs to be planted in the urns outside the front door.
People’s lives are going on but I am in stasis with the decorating saga. Like writing a book, it started out as an adventure, and then became a mistress and finally is a card-carrying tyrant.
Every morning another box from Amazon.com thuds on my doorstep. Every day I shuttled to and from Finkles Hardware store buying extension cords, staple guns (to disguise the extension cords), hammers and nails.
On Wednesday morning I go to Jim’s atelier to meet with Charles Tiffany who will install a chandelier in the resto Delaware Room.
“Do you want ribbons or garlands on the chandelier” I ask.
I am tasked to buy another Christmas tree for the Garden Room.
I started this project as optimistic as someone who starts a crossword puzzle with a fountain pen. Now I am faltering. I ask Jim if his phone can receive pictures. I don’t want to make a mistake and buy the wrong tree.
He waves me aside impatiently.
“Go and buy a fu!@#ng tree! How hard can it be?”
I drive to Flemington. It is perilous driving a car that has the horse power of a perambulator. As each SUV and Hummer roars past me, my little bug feels as though it is about to wobble off the road.
There are no suitable trees at Michaels or Home Depot or any of the other three places that I try.
I have to call in a favour from my mortgage broker friend. He comes to fetch me in his wife’s Audi SUV. I (again) go to Bountiful Acres. It’s like an FAO Schwartz for Christmas decorators. Fake trees run at about $300.
“Get a real one,” Tim urges me.
I have never understood the annual American ritual of tree slaughtering, but in the interests of the man whose taste I admire above all, we join the puffy-jacketed throng milling around in the dark looking for an appropriately sized and shaped tree.
We drag the tree into the restaurant. I text waiter Steven saying “Please put the tree in water or the blood will be on your apron.”
Steven texts back:
“I won’t become part of your Christmas nightmare.”
Next day Jim looks at the tree.
“Let’s forget about the tree. I’ll take this one down to the shore.”
(He has a house at the shore.)
Finally on Sunday morning, Pearl Harbor Day, Jed and Kevin, my two Christmas elves, taking pity on my solitary muling, come and perch on ladders and rewire the arches so that they have only amber lighting. They also lasso lights on the Christmas tree.
(Another helper had started putting the lights on the tree from the bottom up. “Brain dead,” explains Jim.)
Blackpool comes to Lambertville.
My futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world, devoid of God and eternal truths or value continues…