December 6, 2021

Al Martinez... On Everything Else:Lights on the Hillsides, Woe to the World


I strung colored lights around the rim of our house once in 1973 to celebrate our first Christmas in Topanga and I haven’t done it since, nor will I ever do it again.

It isn’t just that I want to discourage others from turning our beautiful canyon into another Santa Clause Lane, it is just that the process of hanging lights around the roof is filled with cultural woe.

I don’t like height to begin with but was conned by our three kids into climbing a ladder to make the house look, well, seasonal. I was happy with the place as it was, complete with bedroom and toilet, but they weren’t enough.

So I grabbed some strings of lights mumbling and cursing like a good father should and began an ascent up the ladder.

Did I mention the German? He was our closest neighbor and sat on his second story veranda critiquing whatever we did, certain that whatever it was would screw up the entire block.

He would call down from his shelf in the booming basso profundo of a Prussian D.I. with an accent we couldn’t always understand. My six-year-old Linda could somehow figure out what he was saying and would explain, “He doesn’t like us, daddy.”

“Up his,” I would reply and my wife would say, “Don’t talk that way in front of your daughter.” So I would modify that to “Nosey old fart.”

He didn’t like us having a horse because its pooh-pooh smelled, or fencing in the horse because a fence didn’t fit the neighborhood.

Most of all he hated colored lights around the rim of the house, any house, even though it was the Germans who first lit up Christmas with candles three centuries ago.

“He thinks lights are ugly,” Linda explained, and I replied, “He can go to hell.” “Go hell,” Linda shouted at him. “Are you happy now?” my wife said.

The lights got up but didn’t work and nothing I did would make them work, a condition which, I am certain, pleased Herr Craphead.

The electrical wires sagged along the roof for several years through wind and rain until they dissolved or the crows ate them or the German crept to the rooftop like a perverted St. Nick and tore them out, fearful that I might somehow get them blinking into his section of the sky.

I am reminded of that first Christmas here as I drive home after dark and spot colored lights glowing like Dutch whorehouses on a far hillside and I pray silently, “Please, God, no Santa Claus Lane in Topanga,” thinking of those neighborhoods in the Valley that go all-out in their efforts to uglify their homes with light displays that are connected from house to house with fat little Santas and puckish Disney dwarfs animated to sing about a reindeer named Rudolph with a luminous, rosacea-reddened nose.

The German has long since met his Ubergott, but I can still hear his voice in the night shouting, “Ugly, ugly, ugly,” and I nod and I smile. May you all have a dark and merry Christmas.