O little town of Bethlehem

December 25, 2007|By Garrison Keillor

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- I woke up in New York one day last week - a good thing, since I had gone to bed in New York the night before - and dressed and packed and hustled off to the subway. On the sidewalk on 86th Street and Central Park West, a newspaper vendor stood with big stacks of the Post, Daily News, Newsday, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Times. I walked up, he glanced at me, reached for the Journal, then the Times. A buck twenty-five for an instant reading of my character.

What is it about me that says I'm not interested in news about the misdeeds of the rich and famous? My black T-shirt? My sneakers? What made him think I care deeply about the arts and the infrastructure needs of developing countries?

I hustled aboard the downtown express to the Port Authority bus depot on 42nd and plunked down $18 and boarded a bus for Bethlehem. A bus trip out of Manhattan is sort of thrilling for me, a real novelty. I've flown out of LaGuardia so many times it's like catching the school bus to Anoka High School, but the last time I set foot in the bus depot was back in 1966 when I was 24 and broke and looking for a job in publishing and took a bus to Boston to interview at the Atlantic. An overnight bus so as to save on hotel, don't you know.

Got to the Atlantic office an hour early and went to the men's toilet. Stood in there at the sink, took off my shirt and sort of bathed with paper towels, and a man in a suit came in, stood at the urinal and made a point of not looking at me. He, as it turned out, was the man who would be interviewing me. It was a polite interview and I did not get the job.

A plane takes off from LaGuardia and in 30 seconds you're in the clouds and see no more, but the bus pulls out onto the street and into the Lincoln Tunnel and over the Jersey swamps to the Newark airport and you see a lot of humanity. And I was sitting behind a young couple whom I observed closely all the way. They were in their early twenties. She was a pale-skinned dark-haired beauty, perhaps an Egyptian film star, perhaps not, and the way she laid her head on his shoulder said that they were sweethearts, but he was so cool toward her, so blas?. He didn't kiss her once though clearly she wanted him to. I heard him say, "I was over at Larry's when you called. Sorry I didn't call you back." "What were you doing?" she said. "Just hanging out." His hair was much nicer than a man's hair should be. Too much time spent on that, and why would you hang around with Larry when you could be with her?

After arriving at the Hotel Bethlehem, I went to the Central Moravian Church and heard the choir sing "Morning Star" and "Stille Nacht" and "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light," Christmas hymns that all Moravians know by heart. An electric star shone from a hill over the town, and there was a grand pageant with three camels, more than in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and even a living creche with bearded townsmen playing shepherds and wise men. I don't know a soul in the town, but had been there once before and sat in the church and felt immediately surrounded by quiet kindness, and then the Moravians sang, and O God can they sing.

I had walked around midtown Manhattan the night before in a cold rain and felt like a character in a movie in which somebody sits in a hotel room with a gin bottle and a view of an airshaft and winds up in the East River. So I got on the bus to Bethlehem.

Christmas is a sad time when you have too much on your mind, and I don't want to be like that young man, in the presence of magnificence and oblivious to it. His life has been too easy for him to understand what a miracle her love is. Mine has not.

So I found a place in the middle of the church, jammed in tight with Bethlehemites, and knew that out of the songs would come a miraculous vision of innocence, pure innocent love, so rare in our time - and we will savor that, and then something else will happen, who knows what.

Garrison Keillor's column usually appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is oldscout@prairiehome.us.

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