Backpacking Dad Looks for Christmas in New York

12/19/2010 By Shawn Burns

When the fourth drag queen stepped up to the microphone and began lip-syncing a stand-up comedy routine I was sure the evening had gone from awesome to fabulous.

But perhaps I ought to begin at the beginning.

Peter Shankman, of and Help A Reporter Out fame, and Hot Blogger Calendar 2009 infamy, sent me a message a couple of weeks ago: Come to New York for a holiday party, #shankman2010; Jet Blue is flying you in.

I’ve known Peter since we did the Hot Blogger Calendar photo shoot a couple of years ago and we’ve spoken regularly on Twitter since then. I don’t claim any special acquaintance with him, since he moves in much different circles than I do, but I’m a fan of what he does. I know that were I to show up in New York for an unrelated reason I could send a message to him and have a coffee or lunch meeting lined up within minutes: he’s just that gregarious. So getting the invitation from him was a surprise, but a very nice one, and I hope less arbitrary than such a thing might be from someone I had never met who just wanted a dad blogger at their party. (And really, who wouldn’t want a dad blogger at their party? We’re the best partiers. We know all the words to the Hokey Pokey and all the moves to the Chicken Dance.)

I told Emily about the invitation and she said “You should go!” We have a friend, Anne, who until recently had lived here on the Peninsula and gone to graduate school with me. She had just moved back to New York, sharing an apartment with her sister, and on the off-chance they wouldn’t mind a house guest for a few days I asked Anne if I could stay with them. “Of course!” she replied.

And that’s how I found myself on a Jet Blue flight to New York City to spend a few days playing tourist, and an evening playing Social Media Personality.

I flew on the red eye Tuesday night in order to have a day in the city before the #shankman2010 party that evening. As it turned out, my hopes to wander around New York taking in Christmas-y sights were derailed a bit by my utter exhaustion (I had failed to sleep as long as I’d hoped on the flight) and New York’s bitter, bitter cold weather on Wednesday.

I met up with Anne in Alphabet City, on the east side of Manhattan, and we went to what looked to me to be a gypsy coffee shop. Then I bought a knit hat and gloves and scarf from a street merchant because the cold air was knifing through the openings in my jacket.

I have no pictures of Shawn in Knit Hat. You’re welcome for that.

Emily had tasked me with an errand for her work gift-exchange. Since one of her co-workers was in the New York office she wanted me to buy a gift card from a brownie shop in Chelsea Market called Fat Witch. Predicting that a nap was in my future in the afternoon I decided to brave the morning chill and head across the island to the market. Although New York is huge in my mind, it really doesn’t take that long to cross the island, so I made short work of my errand. I didn’t hang around Chelsea Market for too long, though. I was flagging fast and needed to go down for a nap.

Anne and her sister were both out during the day, but I had a key and the apartment to myself. I fell asleep for some much-needed rest.

The #shankman2010 party was held down by the Port Authority. The bar was open, the lights were red, the people were….mostly unknown to me. I brought Anne with me as my +1 because she was nice enough to host me for a few days and because Anne used to babysit the kids every now and then and it amused me to tell people that I’d brought the babysitter. (I didn’t actually introduce her to anyone this way, but I totally should have.) Although Anne and I didn’t know anyone when we arrived (except for Peter, but Peter was floating as a host does and so doesn’t count) we started introducing ourselves just to get beyond the “I don’t know anyone at this party this party sucks balls” feeling that is so easy to have.

Being a narcissist, I’d brought along some of the business cards Carla at Baby Ji Designs had made for me before BlogHer ‘09 in Chicago. What the hell? Why not? Sure these people were mostly social media people with real jobs that paid them to use Twitter, but I was a DAD BLOGGER. I was going to (a) have a good time (b) not be intimidated by anyone else’s credentials (c) be interesting to talk to and (d) possibly get hit on by a very drunk lady. In the end, all of that happened.

You make your own party when you’re at a party. I didn’t want my party to suck, and I kind of don’t care if everyone else thinks my party is obnoxious, so that’s the kind of party I made at #shankman2010: a little chatty, a little dancy, a little air-guitary. I passed out business cards and collected business cards and made a moderate fool of myself but I didn’t piss from a rooftop or throw up on anyone’s shoes or makeout with anyone so all in all I consider that party a success.

Although I didn’t know anyone when I arrived that did change a little bit when Scott Stratten (@unmarketing on Twitter) got to the party. Twitter people have long suggested that Scott and I look alike, but I don’t see it. Apart from our zombie pallor I see absolutely no resemblance.


If you ever want to see someone have a good time at a party while also navigating the crowd without alienating anyone, you could do worse than to watch Scott in action. Also, that dude isn’t afraid to dance.


Anne and I left the party a little after ten and then discovered that the secret to avoiding hangovers is late night tacos from Mercadito on Avenue B.

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Seriously good tacos.

Thursday morning I decided to go looking for Christmas in New York. New York rivals London for Christmas archetypes and I was very excited to have a chance to see what the city did for the holidays.

I took the subway up to 58th Street and did some shopping at F.A.O. Schwarz. A couple of employees were playing a holiday set on the Big Piano.


All I wanted them to play was Heart and Soul, though.

I was underwhelmed by the window displays at Bergdorf Goodman across the street. I’m sure they are creations of genius and effort, but they didn’t do anything to put me in a Christmas mood.


Occasionally a storefront on 5th Avenue would have some holiday themed decorations, but it really felt like the city was going about its business as usual with no sense that there was something special in the air.

I kept walking down 5th Avenue and eventually cut over to Rockefeller Center. There, at least, there was a giant tree and ice skating going on. As with most legends, though, the reality is much less impressive.


My feet carried me to Times Square, and along the way I’d catch a glimpse of Christmas spirit here and there.




Times Square looked like it did the last time I was there, except that the show posters had changed. Instead of advertising Avenue Q I was boldly enjoined to see Promises, Promises. I caught sight of the TKTS office in the middle of the square and thought about waiting around until it opened to get some half-priced tickets to a show, any show.

But just as I was walking up to the board to see when the box office would open I was approached by a young woman with a clipboard. “Would you like to take a quiz with a chance to see this afternoon’s taping of The Late Show with David Letterman?” she asked me cheerfully.

I had considered trying to get tickets to a taping of something before my trip, but the short bit of research I had done suggested that they had to be ordered well in advance or you had to wait in very long lines in the hopes of getting tickets that might not materialize. Here someone was guaranteeing me a seat. I’m not a huge Letterman fan, but he was who we watched while I was growing up. So, I elected to take the quiz and try to win a ticket.

“What instrument does Paul Schaffer play?”


“Okay, take this to the box office between 2 and 3 to collect your ticket.”

“Wait, that’s it? I thought there was a quiz.”

“That was the quiz. But you have to promise to show up. We’re counting on you now to fill that seat.”

Promissory note for a Letterman ticket in hand I had lunch at an Irish pub. In keeping with the atmosphere of the place I had French onion soup and a panini.

Then I wandered up to the Ed Sullivan theater where Letterman tapes and wouldn’t you know it? Just as I was crossing the street here comes a guy on fire.


He was fine. Apparently he was lit on fire and sent to cross the street as part of a bit Letterman was doing on the show that day. I think that might be the worst job in New York: Letterman’s Official Matchstick.

The show was fun. It wasn’t funny, really. But the audience was warmed up by an intern and then a warm up comedian and were heavily encouraged to “Laugh First, Think About it Later” so that the show would sound fuller on the air. Some parts were funny, but there was something contagious about slightly-forced (or at least enhanced) laughter. It felt like the early stages of mass-hypnosis: get the group doing something together and soon they’ll feel like they have to do it. Matt Damon was on the show that afternoon and as with most people who appear on small screens in my living room, that dude is short. Not Tom Cruise short, but shorter than me, so I consider him short. I could probably take him.

After the taping I bought some Jersey Boys tickets and went back to Anne’s apartment to charge my phone. It had been dying all afternoon and I’d been sparing Twitter my incessant vacation updates and resolved to rectify that before the evening began. I met Anne back at the theater just before eight and we settled in for what turned out to be a damned good show. I’m sure everyone who has seen Jersey Boys has thought to themselves “I didn’t know that song was by The Four Seasons, but of course it is!” or “Surely they must have gone through all of Frankie Valli’s songs by now. No one could have that many hit songs and not be named McCartney, Lennon, or Presley,” and then discover that no, there was another song that was, in retrospect, so obviously Frankie Valli that they feel kind of stupid about not remembering it. It was a very fun show.

How do you follow up a day like that? Well, if you’re Anne’s sister, sitting back at the apartment making a huge pot of tortilla soup, you think “I need to take some people to a gay bar.”

And that is how I found myself going to not one, but two gay bars in Chelsea with Anne, her sister, and her sister’s gay friend waiting for a drag show to start.


If you’ve never been to a drag show I’m not sure I can do it any justice. This one was in a club called Barracuda, with a very narrow “stage” at the end of the room, just wide enough for a person and a microphone stand. The host herself was so much larger than life that I can’t believe the club contained her personality for the duration of the show.


The performers ranged from acrobatic to artistic to dramatic to insane.



Where was I? Right. At the beginning.

When the fourth drag queen stepped up to the microphone and began lip-syncing a stand-up comedy routine I was sure the evening had gone from awesome to fabulous.

The show was a contest. The winner of the show got $150. That night, the winner was a white drag queen in a purple wig dancing her ass off to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”. There’s just no escaping that song. I wanted the insane vision in a Supergirl shirt and Marilyn Monroe wig who did some crazy breakdance moves to win, but I was out-wooed. That was disappointing.

Also disappointing: I didn’t get hit on by a single guy in that place. What the hell, gays of New York? What do I have to do to get a little ego-boost? I’m not saying you would have had a shot, but you could at least have tried. Bastards. One guy did try to buy Anne a drink. Again: What the hell, gays of New York?

I highly recommend drag shows. I think it was better than Jersey Boys.

Anne and I failed to get tacos at Mercadito’s that night, so the next morning was a little rougher than the previous. It was also my last day in New York. I was leaving on jet plane in the late afternoon, so whatever I was going to do had to be done by two-thirty to give me time to get out to the airport. What I chose to do was again go looking for Christmas in New York.

This time I thought: “Surely there will be Christmas on 34th Street.” And boy, was I right. Sort of. I walked into Macy’s and described the sight I saw to Twitter as: “Ah, Macy’s. It’s like Christmas had a litter of reindeer and left its Christmasy afterbirth in you.”



I continued along 34th Street and then went up toward Anne’s office to say goodbye to her. (Unlike me, she’d actually been going to work during the days I was in town, and getting up early in the morning to do so. I still don’t know how she did that because I barely had the energy to open my eyes.) Along the way I passed 42nd Street, which is just like Downtown Disney. Except 42nd Street has Mary Poppins.


I bid Anne farewell in her towering office building and then decided to go back to Chelsea Market, since I hadn’t looked around much while I was there the first day.

On my way down to the market I got in touch with Liz (@mom101 on Twitter) and she joined me for lunch. I hadn’t seen Liz since Chicago in 2009, and even though we connect via Twitter and read blog posts there’s nothing like a personal meeting to confirm that the people you surround yourself with in your online life are just as lovely in the real world.

After lunch I wandered around Chelsea Market for a bit. Imagine if Harrod’s in London bought Pike’s Place Market in Seattle: Chelsea Market would be the result.

I took one last walk through the streets of New York, from Chelsea Market to Union Square. I had spent a lot of time walking around the city looking for Christmas and I hadn’t found it. New York was either doing too little or too much and I didn’t know why. It was supposed to be a perfect Christmas city, one that is held up as a Christmas icon, and I just hadn’t found it. I had found lots of other great things in New York, but I hadn’t found Christmas.

I started thumbing through the pictures I had taken with my camera. The picture count said “43”, which was a very low number for a trip to a city like New York, and especially for someone like me who tends to take ten or fifteen pictures of the same thing just to make sure I get a good one. Going backward through time I found I’d left some pictures on my card from before the trip. My New York photos didn’t even start until the card was already twenty-five pictures in. That was even more startling. The picture immediately prior to my first New York picture offered the answer to many of the questions I’d been asking about my trip. Why was New York’s celebration of Christmas so underwhelming? Why were places like Rockefeller Center and Macy’s, which actually did put an effort into the season, so gaudy or disappointing? Why hadn’t I taken more pictures?


It was the kids, waiting to decorate the first Christmas tree in their own house. I missed my kids, and Emily, the entire time I was in New York. The reason I’d taken so few pictures was because I didn’t really have anything to take pictures of: Erin and Adrian are always my favourite subjects, and I can’t remember the last vacation I took that didn’t involve making Emily pose in front of landmarks so I could capture her image there. The reason New York seemed both underwhelming and gaudy in its celebration of Christmas was because there was no point to any of it for me without my family there around me.

I was never going to find Christmas in New York. Not on my own. Not without my family. No matter how many Salvation Army Santas roamed the streets there was no Christmas for me in New York.

My Christmas was waiting for me at home, and I was happy to come back.