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A Night Before Christmas

It seemed like old times.

I mean, here it was after dark and there were people on the street who weren’t wearing gang colors or dealing crack cocaine or looking for a handout.

There were little children with faces as bright as star shine, and old people sashaying down Riverside Drive like it was memory lane, and maybe it was.

I’m talking about a Christmas open house in a place called Toluca Lake, which is out there somewhere near Burbank, and really hardly there at all.

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Every store on the street was open and they all had something going.

There were hundreds of people that I could see having a great old time, eating and listening to music and talking to Santa. There was even a bagpipe band, for God’s sake.

I hadn’t intended on being there, if you want to know the truth, because I’m not the kind of guy who goes bopping around this time of year looking for an emotional charge from carols and colored lights.

I don’t need tinsel on a tree to mellow me out. A little jazz and Scotch will do it. Nothing melts animosities like a smoking sax on a cool December night.

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Not that I’m anti-Christmas. I think it’s a terrific holiday for merchants and churches. It also eases the awful burden of guilt for those who otherwise give nothing the rest of the year.

How could anyone not be impressed with a season that celebrates both the births of Jesus Christ and Frank Sinatra?

I had gone to pick up my wife at the Burbank Airport and we were looking for a place to eat on Riverside when we noticed all the people.

Cinelli figured right off it was some kind of party, but I was thinking, maybe even hoping, urban terrorists had invaded the town and chased everyone into the streets.

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“They’re having too good a time for anything to be wrong,” she said. “But if the idea of their happiness bothers you, you can slow down as we pass and curse them from the car.”

After we parked I asked someone what was going on and he told me about the open house. They have it every year in Toluca Lake.

“I thought we were in Burbank,” I said.

“Burbank is back that way,” he replied indignantly.

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“You manage instinctively to touch a raw nerve,” Cinelli said later. “You’ve refined it into an art form.”

Going from Burbank into Toluca Lake is not exactly a passage marked by monumental signposts or even a difference in ambience. It all looks the same.

“This is kind of fun,” Cinelli said, when we paused to listen to carols being sung by a quartet known as the Goode Company. Candles set in the center of large paper bags glowed along the edge of the sidewalk.

“I don’t see how they can keep those bags from catching fire,” I said.

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“It’s a season of miracles,” Cinelli whispered.

The lyrics of “Silent Night” drifted like Christmas ribbons over the strollers and down the chilly night. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright....

Some of them may have even drifted into Burbank.

We ate at a restaurant called P.O.V., which means Point Of View in script talk. There was a holiday bustle in there too. Christmas music was played and slightly overweight women wore red velvet, like Mrs. Claus might if she were in a bar belting down vodka tonics.

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P.O.V. isn’t L’Ermitage or Geoffrey’s of Malibu but it’s not bad. Figure it somewhere between Dem Bones and Papa Louie’s Pizzeria.

We walked the street afterward, among the good-natured shoppers and strollers, and it reminded me of San Francisco a long time ago when walking at night was the thing you did at Christmastime.

We’d start out around Union Square, where the holiday lights glistened in the fog, then walk through Chinatown and end up in a place of spaghetti and jazz on North Beach.

We were very young, Cinelli and I, and we held hands all the time we ambled over the hill to where Broadway joined Columbus, before the bad guys took the night streets away from the good guys in every big city in America.

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“You’re pensive,” Cinelli said as we walked down Riverside Drive.

“I was thinking about Christmases-past,” I said.

“When you denied Bob Cratchit a raise?”

“When we could walk at night without being jumped by brigands. Were we ever afraid then?”

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She shook her head, not answering, and I could tell she was thinking about it too. A night like this, on the street, surrounded by people, was a night that stirred memories.

Santa ho-ho’d across the street, Mrs. Claus continued downing vodka tonics at P.O.V. and the carolers sang “The First Noel.” It was drifting into Burbank again, but that was OK too.


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