Platform : . . . and Other Tales From the Holiday Front Lines

As Told to TRIN YARBOROUGH

SHERI LEVINSKY

Studio City

Our neighborhood in New Jersey was a mix of Jewish, Italian and Irish. Christmas and Hanukkah fell around the same time and our whole block was in a major competition over decorations. We were Jewish, so we only stuck a huge menorah in our window, but the Italians would put whole Bethlehem scenes in their yards, complete with Jesus, the Three Wise Men, lambs--the total works.

I remember an eventful holiday I was eight and visited all the neighbors. First I ate potato latkes with a Jewish family. Next I ate spaghetti and clams with a big Italian family where one kid brought in a live frog during dinner. His mom flipped out, screaming at him in Italian and made him sit in a corner. Then his sister threw strands of spaghetti on him, and the mother started yelling again, then the father, and pretty soon everybody was shouting.

Next I visited an Irish family. The father had just bought his grown son a brand-new 18-wheeler truck for Christmas so he could start his own business and the son arrived as we were sitting down to eat Everyone went outside to see the exciting new truck, but somehow the kid had smashed it all up. The father started screaming and swearing, so the mother sent us kids away so we couldn't hear.

I went back home and reminded my mother like I'd been doing for months to be sure to buy me a gift for Hanukkah. Because at school all the kids had to stand up and tell what holiday gifts they'd gotten. Next day was the first night of Hannukah, and I said: "Where's my gift?" My mom looked guilty and left the room and came back with something wrapped in tinfoil. It was a room deodorizer shaped like a pink French poodle.

Next day she came home with seven gifts, one for each night of Hannukah. But I'd already had to stand up in school, so I'd lied and said I'd gotten a huge electric lion that could roar and move its feet.

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KATHLEEN HEITALA

Pasadena

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I've got no brothers or sisters and my parents are dead, and so I've made a family out of special friends. Last Christmas I invited a few of them over for homemade chicken enchiladas at the apartment where a friend was letting me stay until the new tenants came in, since otherwise I don't really have a home. I asked people I love who've been wonderful to me, who've shown their hearts to me. Three came--two musicians and a poet.

It's strange, but all the years I had a job, a home, a car and good health, I never had the confidence to invite people for the holidays. Yet since I became homeless, and then became so ill that sometimes I have trouble walking or breathing, the people who've come into my life have been wonderful. I always had friendships, but not on the truly deep level they are now, since I've gone through so many hard times.

Knowing I'm sick makes me aware of time ticking away. God replaced the material things taken from my life, things I thought I needed, with what I truly needed--friends. Because I'd always been a lonely person. And now I'm not lonely anymore.

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LIZ GONZALEZ

Mar Vista

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About a week before Christmas my mother, my three younger sisters and I all still go to my grandmother's house in Rialto to spend the day making tamales. My grandmother, Nellie Serrano, wants us there early. She'll have spent a whole week boiling and cleaning the chiles, cooking the pork and chicken, making the masa and laying out the corn husks. At first she'll act very strict, making sure we don't waste time or goof off. She doesn't even like for us to laugh while we work, afraid it will slow us down. My mother, who sits turning out tamales like a machine, is always the peaceful enforcer of grandmother's rules.

But before long my grandmother joins the fun. All of us will be drinking a little beer and listening to Mexican music, and also to my grandmother's favorite song, the Beer Barrel Polka, which she plays over and over and over. Pretty soon she'll get up and start to polka around the kitchen, with me as her dancing partner!

She's 84 but looks 60 and has more energy than all the rest of us put together. She's the tamale supervisor: "too much masa on that corn husk," or, "add more chile sauce." Occasionally she'll say something in Spanish to my mother that she doesn't want us to understand--the rest of us speak only English.

We spoon the insides onto the husks and wrap them in Baggies to freeze, gossiping and talking all the while. We make about 40 dozen, almost 500 tamales, and grandmother makes them last all year. I don't know what we would have done without her and grandfather. After my father died when I was three, and before my mom remarried, we lived with them, and they were always there to help out.

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Dr. LAWRENCE JOE

Silver Lake

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I couldn't speak a word of Chinese except sheu sheu, which means "a little bit." And my seven-year-old cousin Ricky Woo hadn't learned a word of English since he and his parents and seven brothers and sisters had arrived from Hong Kong a few weeks earlier. But his eyes shone with amazement and he laughed with joy when he saw the new bicycle my mom had bought for him for his first Christmas in America.

I was three years older than Ricky. Our family owned a Santa Claus costume, with a beard and the whole bit. Ricky and the other kids in his family were afraid at first to sit on Santa's lap, but got very excited when they saw the gifts my mother had bought for them. It humbled me, because I had never seen such great happiness. Ricky's family was born in China and somehow managed to get to Hong Kong, where they'd lived jammed in a tiny apartment, very poor. They arrived here with almost no possessions, even clothing. It was my mom who gave Ricky and all his brothers and sisters their American names.

Ricky and I grew up together in L.A. He was a pretty wild little kid, a sort of Chinese Dennis the Menace, who quickly learned to race around on his bike, standing on the seat, and getting into mischief.

Now I've become a dentist and Ricky's gotten an engineering degree and lives in the Eastern United States. But that Christmas changed my life. It shaped how I look at people, not at glitzy superficial things about them, but at some deeper thing within everyone.

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NAU X. ILHUCAMINA

Santa Ana

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As a Mexican, Christmas makes me very sad. Christmas and Christianity were forcibly imposed on us by European conquerors, and celebrating it is like celebrating the cultural rape of our people.

In all my life I never celebrated Christmas with trees, gift-giving and such. I was born in Central Mexico, the second youngest of seven children. My parents were Jehovah's Witnesses who do not celebrate Christmas. Even when the posadas--Christmas processions--passed by, my parents would not let us join them.

I am either full-blooded Mexica Aztec or close to it. By the time I was 8 I was one of the best Bible students in our church. But even then I was questioning such things as how Jesus had come to be worshipped by Mexicans, by indigenous people. After I came to the United States I met Xiuitl Eutimio in high school. She is also a Mexica [CQ] Indian from the same part of Mexico, and she believes what I believe. We plan to marry on December 23.

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TOSHIKO HORIO

Panorama City

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A few months after our family was released from the internment camp for Japanese where we'd spent World War II, I looked around our dinner table and thought, "How wonderful it is for our family to be able to share our meal together." In the camp my parents and we six children ate in the mess hall, but almost never together, because of the way things were scheduled.

I was 6 when the U.S. government suddenly scooped up all the Japanese in America, including citizens, and locked us in internment camps until World War II ended. I remember riding the train to camp with my four sisters, my father, and my mother, an American-born citizen, who was eight months pregant. A brother was born in the camp. And after the war, another brother was born.

We were sent first to Manzanar, then transferred to Tule Lake, the camp for rebels. That's because my mother's father, who'd been in America many years, was so angry and hurt by the U.S. government's treatment that he swore he would someday leave and return to Japan. That's why his entire family was moved to Tuli Lake--even my father's mother, who helped raise us.

Most of the Japanese were Buddhists, but camp officials tried to introduce Christianity to us. They'd get us kids to sing Sunday School songs.

Our family celebrates Japanese New Year on Jan. 1. We have traditional foods like moshi--pounded rice--that we place with sake cups and a tangerine with a stem and leaf before the Buddhist shrines in our home. You see, my heart is still Buddhist. That's why we also celebrate Christmas, by giving gifts, because giving, which we call dana, is part of Buddhism.

Incidentally, my grandfather stuck to his guns and did go back to Japan. But because most Japanese resented that he'd ever left, he was discriminated against there, too.

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STEVEN LANDERS

Sheriff's deputy, Riverside County

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After 12 years as a sheriff's deputy, last year I was supposed to get Christmas Day off for the very first time. Our family had special plans, but at the last minute people came asking for volunteers from the Walnut Sheriff's station to help prepare the free Christmas dinners that Legends Restaurant in West Covina was giving out to needy families. They also needed help giving out toys to the kids who came. I talked it over with my wife, April, and we decided I should help.

A few minutes after midnight on Christmas Eve, my wife and I and our three kids opened our presents together, so I could be up at 6 a.m. in time to get to the restaurant. We must have served 2,000 people. There were blacks, whites, and Latinos, at least half of them kids, coming from all around the San Gabriel Valley.

We served five different seatings, one every hour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Some of the Legends employees helped out, dressed as Power Rangers. We were on our feet for hours, first serving the food and then giving out toys..

I grew up in South Central and sometimes we had good Christmases, sometimes we had bad ones. When I told my children I would be away helping on Christmas Day, I promised by 11-year-old daughter Amber that next time she could help too, and she very much wants to do this.

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BILLIE BEACH

Santa Monica

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After all these years, I still remember the Hellish Christmas. I was seven years old, driving with my sister, mother and Dad to spend Christmas as we always did with my Dad's family in Placerville, which used to be called Hangtown because so many people got hanged there during Gold Rush days. But first we always had to stop in Sacramento to pick up my Dad's older sister at the state office building where she worked. Those were the years of huge, all-day, drunken state office parties.

Anyway, it was clear my aunt had been drinking heavily. She wobbled out to our car in her high heels and squeezed into the back seat between my sister and me. She was a large woman, so we kids got squashed up against the car walls as she greeted us with big, slobbery, whiskey-scented kisses. She kept pulling a pint of liquor from her purse and taking little sips. Dad heard the sound of the bottle cap being unscrewed and ordered her to put it away.

He began reaching into the back seat with one hand, trying to grab the bottl, while with the other hand he steered swervingly along the highway. My mom as usual sat in the front seat without saying a word.

Suddenly Dad screeched to a halt on the side of the road, jumped out and wrassled with my aunt for the bottle. Blows were struck, curses exchanged. Dad won, of course, and tossed the bottle onto the car floor as he grimly got back behind the wheel. As we drove on my aunt blubbered that my Dad was mean, cruel, and rotten. She kept crawling over my sister and me, crushing us while trying unsuccessfully to get back the bottle.

In later years, sobriety cleaned up the family's Christmas act, but in the bittersweet way I miss my aunt, who died several years ago.

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JAMES POUNDS

Social worker, Agoura Hills

God will protect me and help me make it home."

That's what this guy kept telling me and my business partner Jewel Ellis last Monday, Dec. 18. We'd planned to meet for lunch in Westchester, and when I cam up I saw Jewel in deep conversation with this short, think, black guy about 30.

He said he'd come to the United States two weeks earlier from his native Panama and was staying with relatives in Palm Springs. He'd heard of a job in Ontario and tried to take a train there but went the wrong way. And his relative's phone was unlisted. So he just starteed walking. Well, at first I was aprehensive. You know how many scams are out there, especially around Christmas, when people are really looking for money.

He wasn't worried, he said, because he knew he'd get home to Palm Springs through the grace of God. We asked if he hand any money. And he showed us a quarter. Next thing I knew, Jewel, who was already buying lunch for me, was buying lunch for him, too. We pooled what lilttle money we had- barely enough to send him back by bus to the station. And I promised I'd send a telegram on my credit card to his relatives, which I did. I explained to him that in a big area like L.A. people have become cynical and suspicious, that some might even be dangerous. But he just kept answering: "I'm a child of God; I know He will help me make it home."

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