December 19, 2005

The Spirit of Christmas in a Parking Garage

Last week, T. and I went down to the shopping district to pick up some last gifts. We split up in order to make purchases for each other, with me taking Puppy in his green hoodie and jaunty Santa cap, strapped to my front like a wiggly elf.

The holiday crowds always set me on edge, but having a baby with me just took everything to a new level. I was already worried about Puppy having a meltdown in the middle of a crowded store (which he did at the Gap in front of the scarves). But this part of our city is always full of tourists, especially this time of year when most of the country doesn't dare step outside without five layers of clothing. Normally I just step around them as they take photos and gawk at the diagonal crosswalks. But that night the stores were crowded with a clumps of Japanese youth on tour, all of whom kept circling around me to point and ooh at Puppy, as if he were Christmas decoration.

By the time a group of drunk frat boys celebrating the end of finals loudly declared to the whole block that I had the "most incredible, cutest baby ever," I was done. Goodwill toward all be damned, I wanted never to see another stranger again. T. and I abandoned our plans to sit down for a cup of coffee and headed back to the parking garage, where we found a line of cars waiting to exit snaking back three levels. We made it to the front of the line, only to find out we had missed the free-parking window at the garage and owed $3.00, CASH ONLY. Which we didn't have. We offered credit cards, checks. "Cash only," said the attendant, with the tone of someone who has repeated the same phrase a thousand times. I frantically looked in every bag, pocket, crook and cranny while the line of cars fidgeted behind us.

We were trapped in front of the guard rail with no way to pay, cars honking, Puppy crying. Then the attendant looked down, and pausing for the briefest of moments, said, "You know, don't worry about it." With the push of a button, the meter blinked to $0.00, we were free to leave, and I remembered that the willingness to reach out into the world of strangers is the very heart of Christmas.

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