Four years ago, I ran out of bus fare on my way to California and crash landed in Sandy, Utah. Yes Utah, home of Sundance, the Salt Flats and Mormonism. Naturally, Utah was not my initial destination. I was trying to get to Sausalito to shack up with a tattoo artist friend of mine for the holidays. Not to put too fine a point on things, but I loves me my whiskey, so the Mormon population of Utah and me do not make good bedfellows. I like to drink, they like to tithe. Whatevs.
While in Utah, I worked under the alter for LDS, helping to maintain the landscaping in Temple Square. Nothing serious, just some lawn moving here, weed whacking around the Beehive House there, stuff any nimrod could do. Got the gig by chatting up one of the head groundskeepers while having a pint at a TGI Fridays in Sandy, one of those mall locations that always seems to stick out like a sore mole when you pull into the parking lot. Twas my first day in Utah, so imagine my surprise when I walked up to the bar, oddly covered with place settings and asked for a Guinness. Sorry, sir, just bottles and you need to order food with it. Say wha? Nothing screams alcoholic degradation like sucking down a Miller Lite in the parking lot of a Utah mall with a steaming pile of Jack Daniels Chicken Tenders in front of you. Pussy magnet, thy name is B.
After a whopping two beers, enough to garner a sideways glance from the ‘keep, the fella flat out asked if I would like a job and place to say while I was raising cash to get to Cali. Turns out the guy was a Mormon Bishop who had been working the grounds since he was 16 and got his calling while cleaning out the fountain at the base of Seagull Monument. A joke concerning how I hear callings all the damn time almost escaped my lips, but I refrained. The man was serious about two things; his religion and decorative water sculptures.
So, that’s how I ended up staying with J for the better part of six weeks in November of 2006. Wasn’t a bad arrangement; I needed a place to crash, he saw a potential convert. Mostly, I spent my days cleaning up the Square while he popped in from time to time to oversee. The rest of the time he was off in West Wendover, spending most of his cash at the Red Garter Casino. Wasn’t a bad guy or even a bad Mormon, just liked his video poker a bit too much. Hear no evil, speak no evil.
Side Note : Temple Square is an exceedingly creepy place and I almost cut out a couple times due to some freaky fucking visions. The place is crawling with spirits, and while I’m not convinced what I’m seeing is actually supernatural, those six weeks in Sandy were beyond bizarre. You can actually feel the energy of people long dead swirling around you. One day, I’ll get into exactly what I saw there, but for now I’m going to refrain. It’s been a pretty good week and I don’t want to put the whammy on it by bringing up bad memories.
Back on task. In my short time in town, I learned Salt Lake City is a city of extremes and facades. On one side you have this huge monument to piety; the members only Tabernacle, the North and South Visitors Center, The Christus housed in a domed room with goofy stars, planets and galaxies painted on it, the overly friendly tour guides, all who want you to convert…all of it designed to project this image of religious devotion. Oh, and money. The Church of Latter Day Saints is a pretty wealthy organization, and Temple Square spares no expense. My last week there, I saw them light the place up for Christmas and it makes Rockefeller Center look like my apartment building.
On the other side, however, if you look beyond the Square, you can tell all that posturing is hiding a sad reality. Salt Lake City is dying. Beyond the Church, there’s nothing there. Walk down State Street downtown and every other storefront is vacant. Nobody walking around, shopping, eating or chatting. It’s a ghost town. I walked into a mall type place and half the building, didn’t just have empty stores, had the lights turned out. And I’m not talking just the empty partitions; I’m saying the lights were out in the fucking corridors. Imagine walking around a dark mall that was supposedly open, with only your footsteps to keep you company. Talk about visions…
And that is the dichotomy of Salt Lake City. Here I was, getting $15 an hour to carefully prune bushes when the reality of the town, behind the façade of giant churches and ornate fountains, was slowly rotting away. For fuck’s sake, they still had the threadbare banners from the 2002 Olympics hanging from the streetlights. All this time and effort spent to keep up appearances when they could simply work on fixing what really needed to be fixed. Like getting plastic surgery when you have a treatable cancer or going on vacation when the house is falling apart. All distraction and diversion from the real issues at hand.
So why this long tale of shrubbery and decay?
I’ve never spent the holidays with family. There’s not a single person on this planet I can call a blood relative, and I’ve come to accept that. Every year, it’s either a Christmas party in Hartford, or Thanksgiving with friends in Brooklyn and every time, I take a look around and say, “Well, this is good enough.” At least I have friends to spend it with. At least, I’m not alone.
This year I realized, for me, it’s really not OK.
Just like those false idols covering up the pain of Salt Lake City, these fake Thanksgivings with fake families are just that. Facades designed to distract us from the realities of our existences. Despite how much fun it is, or how much you drink or who you hook up with, everybody wants to be with family during this time of year. It’s bred into us from birth and if you’re not with them, there is a sad reason why. Maybe you’re too busy with work, maybe you can’t swing the cost of a plane trip or maybe you just can’t stand the drama that goes with a large, sometimes annoying family. Whatever the case may be, these random gatherings of friends only mask a deeper sadness, a deeper pain, much like the cathedrals of Salt Lake City mask the rotting realities of the town they inhabit. A bucket of PBR and a Trader Joe’s pre-cooked turkey can’t replace the warmness of family.
That Thanksgiving in Utah, I witnessed it firsthand. They had a real family Thanksgiving the likes I had never really seen before. They had it all; turkey with trimmings, football on the tube, more desert than Magnolia Bakery and the obligatory spat over the newly appointed Presiding Bishop. All of it was there, some of it great, some of it ugly, but all of it genuine. Real. Unforced. Just a family sharing, laughing, fighting and squabbling, just like families are supposed to do. That night, I spent about an hour in J’s backyard, moaning, crying and making a big damn baby out of myself. The scene inside hurt something deep inside of me. And that night, J came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and whispered, “All things in due time”. Wasn’t after another 35 minutes of weeping did I realize that J was inside the whole time, passed out from a tryptophan overdose. Never heard that voice again.
In closing, I’m not trying to shit on spending time with friends during Thanksgiving and Christmas. The gatherings are often lots of fun, they are usually people you care about and if you’re going to put up a false front, might as well do it with a group. Actually, I was invited to a Thanksgiving in Greenpoint this year. Guy I know knows a girl who was having a get together, etc, etc. Same story I’ve been living for as long as I can remember. Makeshift families, born of a shared longing, pretending, for at least that day, that what they have was good enough. This time, I decided it wasn’t.
I’ve done it to death and this year I decided not to do it anymore.
So my Thanksgiving was spent at home, all by my lonesome. Ordered myself a turkey sandwich from Lenny’s the night before, had it with some Streamfresh veggies, watched the Macys’ parade, the Dog Show, two games of football and the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special, all in that order. And then, with two more hours to go in my holiday, I turned all the lights out, cut off the TV and just sat in the darkness. And thought. And smiled. With the soft glow of a nearby streetlight softly illuminating my temporary place, I saw all I had, all I had to be thankful for. This was me. All of me. And for the first time in I don’t know when, I felt the cracks of my psyche slowly start to heal. Finally, after years of jumping from party to party, to staying with families that weren’t mine, I had torn down that wall and spent a holiday with the person that mattered most.
Damn glad I did.