Living Hell Extra!

My Christmas Eve Story

Duke Chapel, Durham, North Carolina. December 24th, 10:30 p.m., a
half-hour early to the one worship service a year where you already
*know* the hymns. (Or, for Yours Nostalgic, the closest approxima-
tion to St. Marks Cathedral in Minneapolis, where a church-attend-
ing child once squirmed and fidgeted amid architectural splendor.)
Construction on campus sees select streets closed, so parking re-
quires a little exploration in, around, and behind buildings. And
usually with a couple cars in procession, blind leading the blind
into dead-end alleys or rows of handicapped-only. (Future Olympic
event? Synchronized u-turns??)

Five more minutes required for walking to chapel, despite the seem-
ingly close proximity to said spires. (*I* think those Dookies are
experimenting with holography. How else to explain the illusion of
objects appearing closer when viewed over treetops?!?) Round ump-
teenth corner to chapel side entrance and, lo and behold, there's a
throng of people standing outside. Same for front entrance, which
we try next. Seems there's no room at the inn. All seventeen-
hundred seats (!) are bearing buttocks and, per direction of Durham
Fire Marshal, only standing-room only will be allowed in the chapel
foyer, and only *after* the choir has entered.

So we wait, first outside the front entrance, then outside the side
entrance, then *inside* the side door, as I'm one of the few people
who thinks to simply... step inside. (Sweetie, a far more cautious
and courteous entity than I, opts out of entering said unguarded
portal.) The foyer is warm, spacious, and largely empty, save for
X dozen "standees" positioned along the perimeter. And, moments
later, the choir. Robes begin flowing around 10:50 and *continue*
flowing for several minutes. Maybe a hundred smocked singers in
all, of varying ages and similar ethnicity. ('Tis a largely "white
bread" chorus.) Packed into a tight, serpentine formation, the
members whisper and exchange silent instructions as the remaining
outdoor observers-- including my Christmas Eve companion-- rush in-
side to fill the remaining floor space.

Ten more minutes of silent standing 'n' watching; craning for peeks
through the lone inner door of assorted "pre-service" activities,
e.g., candle-lighting, cross-bearing, etc. Then The Moment. Choir
director points, choir members nod, and the bleached mass begins
moving, softly singing some hymn. And we, The Great Christmas Eve
Unwashed, leap forward to fill the freshly vacated floor space.
(Holding a special someone's hand, I lurch ahead as aggressively as
possible, but, alas, end up five or six-people deep. Damn church-

Cheery faced clergy members making motions now, parting the reposi-
tioned crowd like a certain colored sea, preserving that ever-im-
portant "means of egress." (Mr. Fire Marshal is spotted earlier--
a stern-looking, bearded gentleman in plainclothes but with a red-
accented badge hanging over his lapel.) Programs are also handed
out, detailing exactly *who* sings which carols, er, hymns. (The
notes note "choir only" or "choir and all" or a blend of both, as
happens through *six* verses of "O' Come All Ye Faithful," complete
with progressively off-key audience participation and comically re-
vised lyrics, as whispered into the ear of my considerably less-
amused companion.)

Prayers are spoken, scripture is read, and, in the foyer (called a
"narthex," I'm told), the heavy-coated crowd seems enthusiastically
somber. Non-frowns and near-smiles under rosy cheeks and forward-
looking eyes. I'm half-bored, of course, horribly under-stimulated
in this tight, too-small space with minimal architectural eye candy
and the glorious sound of voice and pipe organ piped through a tin-
ny speaker above the inner door. (For acoustic fidelity, I'd give
it a letter grade of...) Still, I stay busy scanning the many fas-
cinating faces of crowd 'n' choir, while simultaneously trying to
keep my footsies from feeling numb. Switch weight between feet;
slip in and out of heels; stand on tippy toes. You know the drill.
(Or maybe you *don't*, if you've never been an altar boy, military
cadet, or fire academy attendee.)

Within a couple hymns, however, my loafer-ed dogs begin barking. I
suggest leaving and listening in the car, presuming the service is
being broadcast. (We know it's being streamed on the *'net*, but a
fat lot of good that does us inside a vehicle equipped with only a
radio, pair of police scanners and one, lighted, back seat-strapped
Santa.) Sweetie concedes to her *own* foot pain and, the foyeris-
tic fools we are, overall coldness. (A problem this Minnesota na-
tive is rarely plagued by.) By 11:30 p.m., we're leaving the Duke
campus. But before any tuning can commence, we pass a young woman
standing beside a stalled vehicle at the intersection of Erwin and
Anderson. "Do you think we should stop?" asks Ms. Compassion-At-
The-Ready. Whip car around on nearly deserted street, roll down
window, and brake to a halt. "Do you require assistance?" Yes, we
learn, the *Russian* woman does. And what happens next, what hap-
pened to her car, and where we ended up *driving* to, will be re-
lated in part *two* of this story, to be told tomorrow or the day
after or the day after that. And, if we're lucky, it might even be
worth the wait!

Watch this space...

Copyright 2001 by Michael J. Legeros


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