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'Twas the Fortnight Before Christmas

A Visit with St. Nicholas, borrowed liberally from Clement Clarke Moore
'Twas the fortnight before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

I checked over my bags and put on my socks with care, dreaming of Canada and hoping that soon I'd be there. After all that packing, just one detail left before I could spend the rest of the day on autopilot: I pulled out my phone, clicked on Lyft's app, and settled my brain for a long winter's nap.


Except there were no Lyfts. Not even for double the usual fee.


Curse you, rush hour, I thought. I gritted my teeth and headed out to find a cab, knowing that often there aren't any in the morning, all of them down by the train station. Everything was set up for my beautiful holiday! What if I couldn't get to the airport and everything was spoiled?


When what to my wondering eyes did appear, but an available, alert taxi! With a little old driver so lively and quick, I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.


His eyes—how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry! His cheeks were like roses,
his nose like a cherry! His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.


He had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a
bowl full of jelly.


I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.


“SFO please,” I said. A wink of his eye and a twist of his head soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.  He spoke not a word, but went straight to work.


And we dashed away, dashed away, dashed away all.


And instantly ran into gridlock. The route to 280 was at a standstill, so we took a twisting series of side streets and somehow got to the freeway. But once there, the freeway was at a standstill too, that could easily stretch all the way to San José. Once again I gritted my teeth, realizing I might easily miss my flight, and because this was the fortnight before Christmas, the chances of leaving on a next flight were extremely unlikely. Weeks ago I got one of the last tickets out of this country. By now they would all be gone.


But as leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky; so off the freeway and on to an unknown truck drivers' route the taxi flew, with my bag full of toys, and St. Nicholas too. We were off on our journey, and we talked about life the whole way.


He is a French horn player. Bet you never knew that. He came out to San Francisco in 1978 and struggled and couldn't get a job. Except then the AIDS epidemic swept through the music community and killed much of his competition. Then there were jobs. He's spent his life playing in orchestras whenever he can, but there's never enough work. He taught at university until the internal politics of college life got too much for him. Ever since then, he's been driving his cab. Now he owns it. He never thought that when he grew up he'd drive a cab, or for so long, but that's real life for you.


“In Europe they treat we musicians like gods. Here they treat us like trash.” He sighs. “But at
least I'm not alone. I have the company of the other guys in the taxi company. PhD's, in school for twelve years and they can't get a job. Artists and musicians. Doctors. Lawyers.”


I told him about the Turkish rocket scientist cabbie I'd met who left his country when it became
religiously fanatic. That was a new one on him.


“It's not a bad job, driving a cab.  If you don't like your boss, it's ok, because in five minutes he'll
get out.” He didn't like the advent of Lyft and Uber and predicted an eventual showdown.


Fortunately he does get some work playing his horn. He showed me a flyer for an upcoming concert for which he'd also composed a piece. “But my favourite gig is, I've been the French-horn-playing Santa Claus in the Nutcracker every year for twenty-five years. The children love it.” He twinkled. He liked to see children happy.


He showed me his taxi licence. Steven Keys, it said, next to a photograph of my bright-eyed,
humorously-countenanced, magnificently white-whiskered driver in a red velvet cap trimmed with white fur. Steven Keys must be a pseudonym to preserve anonymity, I thought. For I knew in a flash, it must be St. Nick!


St. Nick kept me entertained as we raced against the clock. He was funny and winsome. He had endless jokes up his sleeve. Remind me to tell you the one about Beethoven writing the Pastorale down by the swans. Or the one about the guy who accidentally leaves his French horn in a café.


He gave me the best Christmas present of all, something truly magical: he got me to the airport in time.  If I had been stuck on 280 with a Lyft driver and a smartphone, I
might still be sitting in traffic, and here I am hundreds of miles up in the sky, thanks to my jolly old elf. We abandoned the gridlock of the highway and struck out through podunk wastelands of single-lane streets, empty brown hills, and the barren industrial wastelands of the end of the universe. There was not a single sign for anything, because if you needed a sign, you didn't belong here. We twisted and turned and chatted all the way.


And got to the airport in thirty-five minutes! We turned a corner and lo! Airport! Who needs a smart phone when you have a wise driver?


Santa threw in a charming stocking stuffer for good measure: he gave me the faith of his conviction that I was doing the right thing for my life and for my son. He believed my trying to start a new life in Canada was the best possible thing I could be doing right now and wished me all the best. Thank you, Santa.


We pulled up to international departures and I felt a pang upon our parting. I paid him in old-fashioned cash and he thanked me kindly; then turned with a jerk, and laying his finger aside of his nose, away he flew like the down of a thistle.


But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,


“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good flight!”