The biggest thrill awaited at Harvey's, a downtown department store. On the third floor at Harvey's, throughout the year, was a full-sized carousel for kids to ride on while their parents shopped. At Christmas time, the third floor became a candy-cane and snowflake bedecked paradise with a throne for Santa, a huge red velvet bag stuffed with candies and sales clerks dressed as elves running the show. Harvey's' Santa, we were certain, was the real Santa, at least until our hearts were crushed when, finally, we knew better.
Down Broadway, then West End Avenue, we smashed our faces against the car windows as the dazzling array of street decorations flew past. Our final destination was the Parthenon, an exact replica of the ancient Greek temple, set in the middle of a city park. On the front lawn of the Parthenon, every year, a massive nativity scene was erected and lighted with spotlights. Sightseers drove their cars round and round the circular drive, necks craned to see the 10-foot tall figures of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men, eyes straining inward to the hay-stuffed manger where an oversized baby Jesus raised his chubby arms to the sky.
"I believe it's prettier than last year," my mother would say.
"They do a really good job, don't they," my father would say in agreement.
Years later, as an adult, I lived in Nashville and the Parthenon nativity scene had been removed from the stable of city Christmas decorations, deemed an inappropriate religious display for a multicultural city.
But I could still remember the slow drive around the brightly lighted scene. And I could remember the drive home to Bowling Green, down dark highways that rose and dropped, rose and dropped, the road signs' incantation, Do Not Pass, Pass With Care, lulling us to sleep. Leaving the bright lights of the big city behind, we returned to the cozy universe of the inside of our station wagon, warm breath fogging the windows, our father's expert hands resting atop the steering wheel, guiding us home.
I am still dazzled by the spectacle of a big city, especially around the holidays. On a recent weekend in Chicago, I walked the streets for miles, relishing the role of observer among large, anonymous crowds, a camera moving in and out of the throngs, invisible behind the lens. Shoppers were good-hearted and jolly. The big stores already had their magnificent Christmas decorations up, though the windows were still covered in butcher paper, waiting to be unveiled.
The city's energy, its bulk, its muscle, its constant motion, its well-oiled machinery, its buildings with their histories and ornate facades, its museums and hotel lobbies -- all thrilled me to the core.
Following a long wait in a crowded airport, the ride home to Colorado Springs was quiet and uneventful. I read four magazines to try and drown out the feeling of letdown, returning home, leaving the excitement and bustle of the city behind.
The flight arrived late, the airport deserted except for a handful of tired-eyed greeters, there to meet family and friends. I ran into a friend, waiting for a colleague who was also on the Chicago flight.
"Did you have a good time?" he asked, then, "Oh, don't even tell me. I don't want to know." A big city guy, missing the city. I waved goodnight and walked to the shuttle that would take me to my car. The kind attendant wound up and down long aisles of cars, helping me try to spot my red Subaru. It didn't matter that I couldn't remember the location, he said. He didn't have anything else to do. Our lone vehicle roamed the lot until, finally, we found my car.
"Drive safely," he said. A thin sheen of ice covered the car. The night was perfectly black and the edge of the airport parking lot eerily silent.
As I opened the trunk, I heard a shriek, no, a squawk, echoing across a long distance. I looked around, then up, and found the source of the sound, now grown to a burble of squawks. A flock of snow geese, white against the black sky, sailed overhead in a wavy V formation, honking directions, flowing across the empty westernsky.
My heart lifted as I got into my car, rolled down the window to the cold night air and followed them home.