Screw Covid!

At 7:03 AM on Christmas Day, he loaded the bags of presents into the car, backed out of the driveway, and set off for New York.

The temperature was 30 degrees, a wet cold, which can be worse than 20 degrees of dry cold. He turned up the heat and loaded the address into Google maps.  (I know, he shouldn’t have done it while driving, but 7:03AM was an hour later than he had planned. And besides, who else would be out on Christmas morning?)

“Two of my kids are quarantining in New Jersey and one in New York, while I’m stuck in PA?!”, he had said to himself the night before, “Screw Covid!”

The rising sun was just a faint glow behind the thick fog that blanketed route 95 and drained meadows and towns of color all the way up and across the Verrazano Bridge. During the entire two hour drive, he saw almost no traffic, just a handful of cars actually following the speed limit and two ambulances dashing like greyhounds toward unknown hospitals instead of being stuck in traffic, sirens hopelessly screaming. It brought back memories of when 95 had first opened and felt safe and sleek.

His plan was to drop off the presents without being seen, just as Santa had always done. Now that the kids were grown, though, Santa would have to be more devious than usual. He’d have to sneak the presents onto front stoops or into apartment lobbies, in daylight, and then bolt before anyone noticed. 

The Manhattan skyline, filtered white by the mist, was unexpectedly etherial and silent. He scooted through empty Queens streets, marveling at a New York so peaceful and quiet, and came to a stop at a three story 1900’s high rise, still dignified, still impressive over 100 years later. Leaving the car running, he tip-toed into the empty lobby with two bags filled with multi-colored socks, artists’ pencils, photos of his son at age 3, and he couldn’t remember what else. Then he ran back to the car and gunned it for New Jersey.

Yes! One down, two to go. 

An hour later, he sneaked onto a grey porch, this time on his toes to minimize sound, in a drizzly, still sleeping neighborhood of Summit, New Jersey. Christmas tree lights flickered through closed curtains. The mist was rising a few feet off the empty street, revealing slumbering trees and silent shrubs, all well groomed and motionless. Another bag left, oh so quietly. 

Back to the car, back up the road, this time toward Morristown.

Two down, one to go!

The last house was ten yards from the road, down a steep set of wet, wooden steps  He duplicated the tip toe dash, this time holding onto the railing with one hand, while the other clasped the last Christmas bag – a hushed feat of balance and strength – but nothing compared to his footrace back up the stairs.

All three down! Including grandchildren!  

The drive back was anti-climactic (with the exception of more cars driving, two trucks barreling, and several ambulances dashing). So, while still in New Jersey he called his kids to see if they found the presents (and to gloat with silent pride). 

“Thanks, Dad. Did you get an Uber driver to deliver them?” asked the first one.

“All I can say is Santa did it”, deftly dodging the real question.

“Yes! What a great surprise!” said the second. “Are you here?”

“No.” he said. “You’re there. I’m here”, getting a laugh and again dodging the real question.

Then, the third: “Are you in Pennsylvania?” 

Later he came up with really clever non-answers like: “I’m always in Pennsylvania” , “Isn’t everyone?” and “Where else would I be?”

But he was tired and without wit. Taking over for Santa was a lot more demanding than he had thought. So he panicked.

“Yes, I am.” – A bald-faced lie, something he had raised these very kids to never do.

He felt guilty, but not for long. There are times when one has to lie in order to uphold the larger truth: Santa is real.  

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

Clues For Finding A Great Book This Christmas

Clue #1: 

On the first page of the book, a guy leaves a large estate in BMW’s version of a James Bond car. He is deliberately T-boned by a box truck.

Clue # 2:

The heroine is a CIA agent living on Philadelphia’s Main Line (a place, we all know, where excitement and adventure are biblically forbidden).

Clue # 3:

By page 8, when most books are just starting, the reader is in Italy’s Vatican City watching the Pope scream in terror from his third nightmare this week. 

The book is titled: Main Liners Mysteries VI, Visions, the only unexciting line in 377 pages. It is the sixth in a series of page-turners from Barbara Clement, who invests each book with more twists and turns (and crashes) than a police chase through Rome.  

“Visions” in the title refers to that which I cannot reveal… on threat of…

…It was lunchtime on a fall day, the air filled with vestiges of a balmy summer.  She was sitting at a table on the porch at the Main Line Cricket Club. Her blond hair was precisely cut, her eyes warm and inviting as she sipped a cool drink and perused the menu. She was unaware of the lunch crowd chatter from adjacent tables.  

A man walked up to the table. He paused to look at her for a moment. Then, “Barbara?”

Oh, wait. That’s me. And The Main Line Cricket Club is a stand-in for the Merion Cricket Club, where the upper crust play tennis and cricket, and have since 1865. I’m there for a light lunch and conversation about Main Liners Mysteries VI, Visions.

I notice immediately that Barbara has a certain je ne sais quoi, the kind spies have.  I know. I’ve read John Le Carre and Tom Clancy.   

I ask why the book is set in The Main Line, instead of, say New York or Paris. 

The short answer: because that’s where she and the love of her life, her late husband Charlie Clement lived, and where she still lives. The long answer is more wandering. 

It starts as far away from the Main Line as one can get, not counting Camden. Born in Hutchinson, Kansas, she remembers a very midwestern father and having only one book as a child, The L’il Wooly Lamb. When she is a teenager the family moves to a colder version of Kansas, Minnesota. She completes a Degree in Psychology at the University of Minnesota in 3 years.

…Agents of the CIA noted her strong intellect and put her through a number of tests, each one designed to reveal critical aspects of her intellect and personality – aspects even she didn’t know. The results demanded immediate action. They dangled a hefty salary in front of her. She was torn between her father’s expectation of a cornfed life and…

Oh wait! That’s not from the book, either. That’s from her real story, except it was the NSA not the CIA. And once her father learned the salary, he cherished her independence.

Her career after the NSA includes stints as a columnist for a Staten Island newspaper, Vice President of Advertising and Creative services of a New York fashion company, then VP of International Public Relations for Estee Lauder. When her beloved Charlie changes jobs from Manhattan to the Main Line, she does, too, becoming Assistant VP for Communications and Public Affairs and Constituent Publications at Villanova University, during which she helps set up 6 month internship programs at the Vatican – the only such internships in the entire US.

…In 6 months the outgoing American intern turned the Vatican into her personal school room, absorbing daily routines and the inner workings of this Holy place. Her inviting looks were wasted on most, but occasionally, just occasionally, found admiring eyes…

No! That’s not in the book, either! Although a lot of the book’s action takes place in secret enclaves of the Vatican… with details only a studious intern could have brought back to Villanova…

After the other tables had cleared, I ask Barbara if she worked from an outline, as many authors do.

“Nope”, she says. “I just start writing and the writing takes me and the reader on a great ride.”

And a great ride it is.

Now, I could have included her story about her Jewish grandmother, Sophie, who became a Catholic to avoid discrimination … and at age 15 moved to the US after marrying a 30 year old guy…who disappeared with a new girl friend, not knowing his wife was pregnant… 

But that’s for Barbara’s next book. 

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)