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Holiday Fairyland in The City By MAYA ELMER

Friday December 24, 2004

From the crest of a hill off Grizzly Peak Boulevard in North Berkeley, the bayshore suburbs twinkled in the creeping twilight as the tour bus left the East Bay for the charismatic magic of The City at night, especially during the holiday season. My thoughts flashed back—really, was it 70 years ago? 

I spent my early years in Detroit, Michigan, whose very hub of retail existence was the J.L. Hudson Co. For instance, the entire third floor was devoted to yard goods, materials for sewing clothes—oh, Martha Stewart, you would have eaten your heart out. When we lived in the undeveloped hinterlands where farms still crowded out the every-now-and-then colonial two-story home, my mother could phone up the store, “I need two spools of thread, one white and one blue,” and the green-paper package with the Hudson logo would be delivered in a day or two!  

At holiday time, the entire tenth floor was turned into a fairyland. No FAO Schwartz, or Toys R Us, with shelves crammed commercially full. No. Lights and balls hung from the ceiling; gold and silver garlands draped and dropped from invisible hooks and nails; crystal icicles, large and small, dripped and twirled at every breath. Christmas trees were tinseled here, there and everywhere across the huge space. Distinctive Dutch, Indian, Chinese theme decorated trees alternated to pop up in an unexpected corner. Colored banners fluttered from poles slanting over head. Trains ran around, over and under their bridges, with twinkling lamps switching off and on. Little houses, tiny skaters flew around their artificial ponds, small Santas were arriving on every miniature roof top. Christmas carols made constant music.  

Our eyes could not snatch it all in at once.  

Real live fairies with tutus and wings and Santa’s elves were there to help guide us up to the throne of the fattest, reddest, most ho-ho-est, Jolly-if-you- please, Santa. What did I ask for as I whispered in his ear? Only he remembers now; but the awe of the myriad curtains of lights, the thrill of the unknown becoming known for today—Aah, that was the fairyland for that little girl and her sister and brother in the ‘30s.  

Yesterday, here in the Bay area, I found my fairyland: for grownups, beyond the household lights of the suburbs. Twenty friends and I were driven through the darkening dusk to gawk at the gold and glitter of San Francisco celebrating the winter holidays. Believers and pagans alike explored the pageantry wrought by the wires of PG&E inspired with human creativity.  

A macramé of delight surrounded the special tree that centers in Union Square., setting off the beautiful statue atop the slender Dewey monument now cast in the darkness. On one side the Saxs Fifth Avenue building was startling in the glory of its huge gold snowflakes covering its major wall; and Macy’s wreaths in every office window up to its eighth floor. Union Street had its blocks of boutiques reflecting back at each other; Plump Jack’s, a local bistro—and named after the title of a local opera—covered its awnings in the dark ice-blue of glaciers.  

The Opera House lent its glamour to the toy soldiers painted with lights standing tall between the façade pillars encased in lights, too. Made more dramatic by the transparency of the two story glass windows of Davies Symphony Hall across the street. It seemed to float, each pane with a tree decorated by a different San Francisco school group.  

Down through the Embarcadero and a walk through the Hyatt Regency Hotel lobby with its five or six curtains of light dripping from its fifth floor atrium. Breathtaking… Into the financial district where each bank vied with the glitter of its tree, the garlands of gold in their lobby. It was hard to know which window of the bus to look out of—to the left or to the right. 

Finally back to the approach to the Bay Bridge with its double looping, swooping of lights from tower to tower. Then surprise, our journey took us left at Yerba Buena Island, around the curves, and a quick U-turn to park along the shore line where the well known outlines of the four Embarcadero Towers loomed up and over the golden glitter of The City as seen across the water. Most remarkable was the effect of the office lights in the buildings themselves. From our distance it was as if we were looking through the buildings to the hills of houses—as if the only solid pieces were the outlines themselves—the buildings had disappeared leaving us to look through them to the beyond. The Pyramid building stood tallest with a light like the north star gleamed at it’s top.  

“But,” said our guide-historian, Craig Smith, “it may be the tallest building in San Francisco, but if you want to have the highest office, reserve a place on the Bank of America Building. The pointy part of the pyramid is full of machinery and not desks!” We, all retirees now, laughed along with him.  

The major impact was the view as a whole: The hills of San Francisco, The City, seen from our vantage point, glowed in it entirety along the horizon. It was more than just the sum of its parts; Our eyes couldn’t snatch it all in at once. Indeed our grownup fairyland was laid out in front of us this holiday night in December.