by David Lambert
A month before Christmas ’76 I hired on as a writer for a small newspaper in Burien WA, 20 miles south of Seattle. Back then Burien was a slow-life bedroom community that fed the newly awakening Seattle metro. I was a reporter with flair for soft news, features — and I was the new guy from The South. My editor was Ed Penhale, a skinny guy with Woody Allen lips and a scraggly beard. Penhale was a Live Free or Die New Hampshirean with a big heart and a quick laugh. I enjoyed working with him and he was a very competent editor.
And, editor Penhale, God love him, was a music freak—a progressive post hippy brainiac from the Woodstock era who still clung to the best of the flower power ethos.
He’d been given a set of tickets for dinner and a performance at Seattle’s old Pioneer Bank, a 19-Century architectural relic that had survived both fire and quake. The building sat amid the concrete tats of other times in the Northwest. Downtown Seattle —cool place if you like architecture and history. I did and I do.
Penhale knew I’d be alone that Christmas. New to Northwest and new to my job, I’d had little time to make new friends, and the ones I’d begun to regard kindly were leaving for home and holiday. So before he took wing, Penhale gave me those tickets for a Christmas Eve repast—drinks, dinner and a ticket to see jazz violinist Joe Venuti downstairs at the Pioneer Bank. This, by the way, compliments of the news edit desk.
Early Christmas Eve 1976 I dressed in my only coat, a worn and drafty woollie, and drove deep into Seattle, deep into the cold and hilly downtown, which like me, wore its old and only Christmas finery. This was the year I’d eat Christmas dinner alone.
Pioneer Square was alive with last minute shoppers, and there were plenty of revelers, so I was alone but not lonely. I sat down to a near-Authurian repast, lamb with mint and a pear chutney, golden roasted birds with golden roasted vegetables, great slabs of juicy beef that leapt from the carver’s knife, and oyster dressings and tangy white cheeses and hard crust breads and fruits of all roundness and flavor, all of which I doused with bricky, rich red wine.
And the desserts, my God, the pie crusts alone were art — rhubarb, mince, apple and cherry and pear. But I tasted none of these because my heart was set on one dessert only, a simpler prize — bread pudding.
Is bread pudding not the most democratic of desserts? A sumptuous aggregate of throw-aways and have-arounds—stale homemade bread, raisins, milk, and cinnamon —covered with a buttery sugar and bourbon sauce. Only this dessert seemed reasonable after the lordly meal at which I’d just spent hours.
Pioneer Bank was dressed in lush Christmas tones, fat golden bows and ribbons of scarlets and forest greens. The staff had done the old girl up. Still, regaled or not, most diners abandoned the place after their feast and before the music started.
Around 11 p.m., with a swollen belt line and a body on the verge of revolt, I pushed away from the rich coffees and post-dinner brandy and walked downstairs to the little show venue, not much more than 50 seats and a stage. I heard Joe Venuti’s twirly, rollicking jazz violin before I could see the group. He was on stage with two sidemen, a pianist and a stand-up bass player.
The band was in mid-song and it was very dark so I grabbed a quick seat in the rear. The song finished and the stage lights perked up to show that I was the only body in the audience. It was me and the band.
Joe Venuti, Considered by Many The Father of Jazz Violin
Venuti looked at me and said ‘Merry Christmas, you by yourself?” I said yeah. “Like jazz?” he said. I said yes sir. “Come on up if you want.” I did, moved myself to the front row.
I stayed for two sets. I bought the room a round of drinks, but the band were pros, which means they politely tasted their drinks then set them aside. It was Christmas, what the hell. They were on the road and I was away from home and I was just tanked enough to not be intimidated. . .much. I figured they knew I couldn’t play by the way I talked. If I had been any kind of player, they might have had me sit in.
At midnight the band came back from a break and Venuti had the house bring out a bottle of champagne. We toasted Christmas 1976. The band cranked up for another set. I stayed for a final drink and in between songs, I bid my farewell. I told Joe Venuti this was maybe my most memorable Christmas and I thanked the band and him for their kindnesses and friendliness. Now when I think back over my many holiday seasons, I think maybe what I told Joe Venuti and band was right: 1976, the Christmas I dined alone.
— c. 2010 David Lambert