Right off the bat, let me just say that my heathen parents never taught me about Santa Claus. For all their faults as human beings, I was not raised to believe that one man could fly around the world spreading joy.
But when I walked out of the prep kitchen at the Museum of Modern Art in 2005, I knew that someone had done just that. Because of a contract dispute, the entire NYC subway system would be shut down immediately. We had only a few hours to scurry home. The joy was contagious, as if Santa Claus himself had come down and told all the little elves (you know, working adults) to take this year off. This was great since normally, because I was the new guy at MoMA, I was worked harder, like Rudolph the red nosed reindeer. We plopped our stained kitchen whites in an ever-growing pile, like those heaving glaciers of Christmas cheer on the edges of suburban shopping malls. In the fraternal quarters of the men’s locker room, Israeli sommeliers, Mexican busboys and Bangladeshi food-runners all rushed out to tell their families the good news: For once, I’ll be home for Christmas.
Most restaurant workers in New York expected to work on Christmas. At best they’d work a dismal Christmas Eve, maybe find another lonely heart to make out with at a Christmas Orphans party, then rat out their apartments for a bleary Christmas before another slow day on the 26th. But not this year! We would have to close, right?
Instead of sneaking down chimneys, though, we were buzzed up. To walk-ups, to parties. There were lots and lots of cookies. Honestly, I don’t know how Santa does it.
“Hey, Sullivan,” I heard from behind me. The manager who’d hired me away from a failing Jean-Georges steakhouse only six months ago called my name through the hallway. Her spindly wrists stuck out of her polyester pantsuit like the Grinch in his Santa costume. I wanted to bail out the side exit, but in the Museum that would have caused a kind of security breach like in that new year’s hit movie, The Da Vinci Code. “Great news! I live right by you and I can give you a ride tomorrow. We’re going to have to leave early. 7:30 work for you?”
I returned home crestfallen. Of all the good little boys and girls in Whoville, the Grinch only wanted to steal my special holiday.
It is hard, now, to remember the New York City of 2005, but let’s just focus on how the city was supposed to cope with this outrageous week. In order to navigate the city you were expected to stand outside in the cold and wait for a cab. Then you had to pay a flat fare of $10 to get anywhere in Manhattan. While you were in that cab the driver might stop and pick up a total stranger along the way and you had to share a ride. You couldn’t then split the fare. You both paid for it. And then you were locked in this car with this person who might murder you and you paid $5 for each of the four zones in Manhattan. This stranger might live and work nearby, but you had no way of running a background check. No way of knowing if you had friends in common without asking about each of them one by one. PLUS $5 to get into Queens or Brooklyn. And that was just a regular fare; the vultures at JFK began surging their prices to $250 just because of the cruelties of capitalism.
And what was one to do on this snow day? Surely all the neighborhood restaurants would be havoc. At best, the analog Netflix subscribers could hope that none of the three movies in their plan were safe at home in their DVD envelopes.
I came home from work and realized that with my zone, I would have to pay $70 just to get from my house to my low-paying job. Or ride with the boss.
And that’s when I remembered my one-horse open sleigh.
According to the ancient manual, my red, 60cc Suzuki scooter clocked in at five horsepower—less power than a riding mower. A sweetheart had bought it for me for our first Christmas together in New York. And it sat lifeless on my stoop since. Was it a fun ride? Yes, even if it did have the silly little basket and no torque. But this was 2005, long before Tinder brought unlikely couples together just for the fun of it. Then your surest bet for meeting a date was getting someone your friends had recommended. In fact, the AOL or AIM slang term for a date who’s “fun to ride till your friends see you on her” was “moped.” However, there was nothing in the manual about what to do if your scooter had recently been encased in an early winter blizzard.
I stayed up all night working the engine in the cold. I cleaned the carburetor again, hoping against all hope that I would have enough juice in it to get that rickety engine going in the cold morning. I pumped up the tires by hand with a borrowed bicycle pump.
It’s hard to remember now when we have Uber and Lyft to get around. As I scooted over the Brooklyn Bridge, the walkways teemed with lifeless hordes. Gypsy vans raced back and forth over the bridge with Jamaican nurses sharing seat belts with clean-shaven young bankers who now regretted moving to “edgy” Brooklyn. Other commuters wrapped scarves into ski masks and pumped across the bridge on fancy off-season mountain bikes. This is how people, left to their own devices, made it through the transit strike in a time before people were used to carrying around their own devices.
Our “snow day” happened, but not quite as I planned… and it actually turned out to be one of the most fun days at the restaurant. A ragtag group in mismatched uniforms crisscrossed the dining room. Sommeliers carryied trays for absent food-runners. A gleeful waitress pitched in behind the bar—a permanent career move on her part.
The magic spell of that day broke, of course, when we all had to find our way home again—a slow slog that would take many two hours. Even though I was now cut loose, no one would dare wait around and catch a drink with me. With all the freedom in the city at my fingertips, I would spend everyone else’s snow day holiday alone.
A couple of waitresses who lived together on the Lower East Side knew about a party in somebody’s loft. But, like many parties then, it involved hand-written instructions. It didn’t take long for me to realize that they’d never let poor Rudolph join in any of their reindeer games.
So I took a ride over to the Time Warner Center, a building paid for by the great AOL Time Warner merger, across from the original Jean-Georges restaurant in the Trump Tower. Here it was like the ’90s never stopped: a gleaming, scented J. Crew Store, a Williams-Sonoma and the great 20th Century Cathedral to the printed word, the recorded disc and the DVD “Borders Books and Music.”
Along the top row were the three most expensive restaurants in NYC: Per Se, Masa and V Steakhouse by Jean-Georges (which does not appear in his well-weeded Wikipedia page). That’s where I had worked until very recently. That year they were making a quiet exit from their audaciously expensive location. The restaurant was well placed with a celebrity chef in a beautiful location. But in 2005, a new restaurant required a positive New York Times review to thrive. And columnist Frank Bruni had not been impressed. (Opening line: “Like most other adult mammals I know, I usually manage to ingest food without the benefit of coaching, but then I do not usually eat in restaurants as assiduously convoluted as V Steakhouse, where servers are tutors and we diners their captive pupils.”)
The doomed, cavernous restaurant was mostly empty. I sat at the bar, eating my burger alone as the hostess began to chat me up in a friendly holiday way. “My friends are begging me to do their shopping in the mall for them,” she said. “But how am I supposed to get all these presents from here to my friends all over downtown and still make it to this party later?”
“Well,” I said—and this is the only time this line has ever worked on a woman—“I do have a little red scooter with a basket parked outside…”
Twenty minutes later she had made my check disappear. In its place, the pastry chef had sent out a plate of cookies. Her phone sprang to life with orders from the Secret Order of Hostesses throughout the city. A chef here needed this, a waitress over there wanted that. As I looked down at my full belly and the plate of cookies, I thought about my sleigh parked outside in the snow and realized: All along I wasn’t Rudolph, I was Santa Claus.
We left together and roamed the vast, empty palace mall—the streets and sidewalks around us were uninhabited for miles. But the stores still scheduled their little elves until midnight, scrawling hand-drawn signs in this tawny, corporate mall, announcing 60 and 70 percent off just to actually land a sale. This was my first Christmas as an uncle, my now 10-year-old niece was about to be initiated into a lifetime of sugar and torn wrapping paper.
The nicest surprise: When they couldn’t meander through a mall or down Fifth Avenue looking for the perfect gift, people were more than happy to text over a book title. “Can you get me anything Roald Dahl for my 8-year-old cousin?” “Hemingway for my old man.” “Get me a Zadie Smith for my hip auntie?”
That night we crisscrossed the city. Ms. Claus holding me tight around the waist, keeping us both warm. Instead of sneaking down chimneys, though, we were buzzed up. To walk-ups, to parties. There were lots and lots of cookies. Honestly, I don’t know how Santa does it.
When we came to the very last party I looked inside and I saw all the waitresses from MOMA. They rushed over, as if we had always been best friends, and I gave them their Dan Brown books. “Come in!” “You must be freezing!” “Come warm up by the space heater.”
I smiled, but then I remembered something. “I’d like to. But I have to open tomorrow.” In the corner, a six-disc CD changer of Holiday tunes made its long mechanical pause between songs. And I called out to the party, “But thank you for the cookies and cheer. Merry Transit Strike to all! And to all a good night!”