[It’s a Christmas Story! A breakup story! A story about why I hate Toto and Christmas anywhere but here! Sorry if you read this already! I’m like the crazy uncle that keeps telling the same stories over and over!]
The year was 1978. It was a tumultuous year; the death of Keith Moon, the Jonestown Massacre, the debut of Garlfield, Saturday Night Fever. For a 16 year old, I had an acute awareness of the world outside of my own little high school/town. I knew everything that was going on in the world in regards to culture, politics and news. Too bad I had no inkling what was going on right in front of me, in my own home. I would have put a stop to their evil plans sooner.
I do believe the plan was sprung on me at the last possible minute so as to avoid a protracted, dramatic reaction.
“We’re going to Florida for Christmas!” Dad says this in a tone that is trying to be both firm and jolly. As in: We are going to Florida and I know you think you’ll hate every minute of it but the decision is final and you better make the best of it for the sake of your sisters and your mother or I will kill you.
“But…but….,” I manage to stammer.
I flee to my room, throw myself on the bed and cry in the way that only a 16 year old who thinks the world is supposed to revolve around her can cry. How dare they not consult me? I have a life, too. I have Christmas parties to go to. I have friends to exchange presents with. I have a boyfriend!
I tried explaining all this to my mother, who just answered me with lines that had obviously been practiced. Your cousins really miss the family. It would be nice to spend a holiday with them. Just think, it will be warm on Christmas! We can go to the beach!
The beach? This is supposed to make me feel better? I’m sure people in warm climates don’t think twice about going to the beach on Christmas, but I am a New Yorker, damn it, and we don’t do sand, surf and sun on a winter holiday!No snow. No wind howling down the chimney. No bulky sweaters. No itchy wool hat pulled down over my eyes as I run through the mall parking lot with my friends, trying to find the right bus home. It just wasn’t right.
Of course, there was the whole boyfriend thing to deal with. Bobby was what I called a Cling-on. He followed me around like a wounded puppy that needed constant petting. I attributed this to his youth. He was, after all, just a 14 year old freshman . I had tried several times to break up with him, but I always backed off when he hinted that it would destroy his very existence if I were to leave him. I hadn’t yet developed my crusty, hardened shell necessary to not care if he slit his wrists. Which was all just puppy boy talk, anyhow. So I figured this would be a breaking point for him. If I were to take off to Florida for the Christmas break, he would get mad and petulant and maybe he would be angry enough to break up with me! Finally, a silver lining in the Christmas in Florida dilemma.
I’m sure my parents were confused about my sudden turnaround. I was all sunshine and smiles as I packed my suitcase for the trip. I had found a way to make this trip work for me, self centered teenager that I was.
After waiting for my little sister to tearfully compose her postcard to Santa informing him that she would be elsewhere for Christmas (she was terrified that Santa wouldn’t forward her presents to Florida), we took off for the great green south.
The first thing I noticed about Pompano Beach, Florida was that everyone within a five mile radius was either a crackhead or a senior citizen. There was no in between. Even my cousins - former New Yorkers - had taken on that slight glow of Florida craziness. Their neighbors to the right had no teeth. Their neighbors to the left had no furniture. The people around the corner sat on their rickety front porch all day and night, drinking beer and throwing rocks at passing cars. Everyone spoke in a slow, monosyballic drawl. No one knew anything about the world outside of their own block. They didn’t know who the Ramones were.
Making matters worse were the palm trees decorated for Christmas. It was a holiday twilight zone. Colored lights strung from coconuts. Flowers blooming amidst the cardboard cut out reindeer. Pictures taken with a surfer Santa on the boardwalk. It was wrong.
I was pining for New York, pining for my friends and, worst of all, pining for Bobby who, while annoying and clingy, at least had all his own teeth and listened to good music.
Music. Oh, there was music playing all the time. My cousins had the radio blasting at all hours. No Christmas music, for which I should have been grateful, but some top 40 radio station where the disc jockeys had fallen in love with Toto’s Hold the Line.
If you’ve never heard that song, be thankful. It’s pop dreck at its worst. The band consisted of several studio musicians who had played with some of the most popular bands of the 70’s (Steely Dan and Cheap Trick to name but two). I think they were using Toto as a pretentious nod to the masses, as if to say “you guys don’t appreciate musical perfection, so maybe if we wrap it up in some dumbed-down lyrics and candy chords, you’ll buy it.” Or maybe they just thought that putting all that talent together in one place meant they would be assured of chart victory. Think of them as the New York Yankees of 70’s radio.
It’s not in the way that you hold me
It’s not in the way you say you care
It’s not in the way you’ve been treating my friends
It’s not in the way that you’ll stay till the end
It’s not in the way you look or the things that you say that you do
Hold the line
Love isn’t always on time
Repeat that to varying degrees for a few minutes and you have Toto’s first hit. It really wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t playing on the radio - I swear to you- every half hour. And it certainly wouldn’t have stuck in my craw the way it did if it wasn’t the background music for my Christmas in Cracktown.
Everyone was singing it. The old, the young, the toothless, the drunk, the surfing Santa. It was almost robotic, in a sense, like these people had been subliminally poisoned into believing that singing Hold the Line was going to make their clothes brighter, their cars faster and their beer stronger. I seemed to be the only one impervious to the horror.
Christmas Day arrived. 80 degrees and sunny was the forecast. I laid in bed that morning dreaming of a White Christmas and not at all anticipating going into the sun room to open presents with the lovely bunch of coconuts on the palm tree peeking in the windows and the warm ocean breeze wafting in.
I took the grin and bear it route for my little sister, who was overjoyed to see that Santa had indeed gotten her postcard and delivered the presents to Florida. Whee. Yay. Merry Christmas, everyone. And the gods of eternal summer bless us all.
Bobby called my aunt’s house Christmas afternoon. He missed me. He wanted me to come home. Christmas was depressing without me. And I was just about to give in and start crying and sniffling that I missed him, too, and I wanted to be home with him right then and he blew it. Completely and utterly blew it.
He told me to hold on, that he had a present for me. I waited. What kind of present could he give me over the phone? This was in the days before anyone heard of phone sex and really, phone heavy petting just doesn’t have the same ring to it. In a few minutes he came back on the line. He was strumming his guitar. Said he had a song to sing for me. Oh, you know what’s coming, don’t you?
It’s not in the way that you hold me. It’s not in the way you say you care….wooOoooo.
Something burst inside me. I could not take it anymore. I thanked Bobby for the song and told him we had to talk when I got back to New York. I hung up and made the decision right there and then to break up with him when I got back, death threats to himself be damned. That song was a sign that things were just not going to work between us.
I spent the rest of Christmas break walking around the streets of Pompano Beach making observances of the strange breed of people that lived there, for future novel-writing reference. I was relieved to finally get home to the cold, gray New York snow. I think I kissed the ground at the airport.
I broke up with Bobby the night I got home. I said nothing of Hold the Line. I just told him honestly, in a 16 year old’s version of honest which is, I guess, brutal, that he was too clingy and whiny and he was smothering me. He responded by singing Hold the Line into the phone until I hung up. Oh, and he did try to kill himself, sort of. Rumor had it that he spent five hours under the sunlamp in his bathroom thinking he could burn himself to death. Which would explain why he came back to school looking like he took a bath with a cooking lobster.
I’ve carefully avoided the Toto song until now. And I have no one but myself to blame that it’s careening through my brain at the moment, bringing back all kinds of memories of surfing Santas, lit up palm trees and crackhead Floridians.