SANTA STRANGERS

The Jews have a custom. Each Passover they invite strangers into their home, to come sit at the Passover Seder table and hear the story of how the Jews were slaves in Egypt 6,000 years ago, built the pyramids and were led to freedom thanks to the plagues brought forth on the Pharaoh. Most guests show up at this table as a couple. Sometimes a well-behaved married couple. Sometimes a gay couple. Sometimes a disabled couple or occasionally an individual person appears doing their best to not look spooked or lonely. Someday I’d like to invite a homeless person in to our Seder Table for dinner.

Though I could stretch a connection of Passover to The Last Supper attended by Jesus and the anticipation of his birthday this coming week, which some how translates to all of us spending all our money on gifts for each other. Or I could become slightly messianic myself, and suggest how me and Jesus are a lot alike, attending similar Passover Seders and always talking to strangers. We both prefer to walk barefoot and over the course of time there have been many neighbors that thy’n have loved… and many, not so much.

However, this is not a story about Passover, nor is it one really about Jesus; though that would be timely. This is more a story about what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land. What it’s like to be invited in as a guest by those unknown to us and to participate in other’s traditions and celebration. All respect to common ground, this is a tale about being anonymous among others not known to me; gathered as new friends but not familiars or family. For one night, we were  all the same, setting out on an adventure to a far away land in search of a prize.

It all started late this past Saturday afternoon; the last weekend before Christmas. I was invited to join some new friends, out on their boat and take pictures of them and their gang, as they competed for best decorated boat in the Treasure Island Boat Parade. Ever notice how nice some people are to complete strangers? No interpretations of perceived value, just equal humans with equal humans, eating, drinking, celebrating and floating on a boat.

I arrived early to see what kind of people were around and to just generally warm up my camera for what I hoped would be yet another departure from the normal. Once the car was parked, I patrolled the local beach for odd and different.

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Near this beach was a boardwalk catering to tourists and I walked among these strangers in this land. Dozens of boats advertising a swim with the Dolphins or a once-in-a-lifetime experience in parasailing,  but for the most part just many bars and restaurants selling seafood. There were also no shortage of gift shops selling sea-side souvenirs, t-shirts and salt water taffy. I wondered if any of the people I would meet later in the day, worked at any of these places.

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Trying to look for the more artistic among the routine,  I walked beneath a drawbridge as it opened and could barely see the full lift through the split between the two roads. I thought barely for a moment about the metaphor of crossing a bridge between who I knew and who I was about to meet. I thought about how a drawbridge works, just letting unidentified boats through just because they toot their horn.

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And under the bridge, close to the beach, the water crashed up on the shore and twinkled at me. Once the dazzle wore off from the hypnotic sparkle, I checked the time on my phone and realized I had better get going.

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I drove over to the  party boat, got my camera ready and began the process of meeting complete strangers and putting my life in their hands, as we filled the boat  with beer, wine and fried chicken. Soon the other guests arrived in their best Santa Suits. Almost all these folks knew each other but I didn’t know any of them and they knew nothing about me.

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In the first place I’m terrible about remembering names. I’m the guy at the black jack table who looks at his cards every two seconds because he can’t remember two numbers and two suits. And here we all are with these sweet Santa girls arriving with their fellas and I couldn’t for the life of me absorb a single name.

I could however retain fragments of the stories overheard. The guy who invited me aboard to shoot was mentioned as someone who did websites or Facebook pages; but I didn’t ask further. The older gentleman who arrived wearing an elf’s hat was a boss. I didn’t know if he was the boss of the mob, the boss of the kitchen, bar or the boss of the whole restaurant. I guessed bar, because of some of the footwear worn by the Santa Sisters and stray words grabbed from disjointed discussions of past and open bartender jobs… but just fractured words here and there pertaining to interviews, bosses and customers.

Everyone on the boat was so amazingly nice to me as I hid behind the camera shooting away at all the merry that would go around. Oddly, they all loved having their pictures taken and I loved shooting them; we were all there doing what we wanted to do as the boat departed down the canal.

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The sun started to set as I grabbed what I could from its seductive light. Stories overheard included one woman’s history as a model in the fitness industry. Another woman boarded the boat with a new boyfriend that she was really excited about. At the end of the evening, this new couple would quarrel, because she drank too much and he felt she was giving too much attention to others and not enough to him.

Complete strangers with completely familiar stories and drama. I could see pieces of me everywhere in the passengers aboard the boat whom I’ve never met before.

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And then there was this parrot. Can’t be a pirate on a Christmas Cruise without a parrot. This was the coolest parrot I’d ever seen. Just hanging on the yardarm eager to stand on the shoulder of all that would take him. As the evening grew darker the red and green Christmas lights hanging all over the boat got brighter, he stared at me and I at him. His name, I remembered… it was Spike.

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As the evening wore on, the passengers got more and more relaxed. More and more altered and more and more intoxicated. No mean drunks on this boat… just a lot of smiles and hugging. And as the hugging became more frequent more stories leaked out about who used to hug who and who used to date who. Meantime, I just kept snapping away.

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The boat continued on to the place where all the boats would be judged. Screaming girls in Santa Suits waved at onlookers from the shores. Music blared through large speakers hung on the mast. Drunk DJ’s grabbed the mike, “Let’s hear a round of applause for Sandy Beach” he would say, and the folks standing on their home docks waved and applauded. I didn’t know if one of the girls name’s was Sandy Beach or if we all living in the tropics naturally applauded the sandy beach.

In my imagination I got a twinge of stripper club intuition as the announcer on the boat seemed a little too well versed at calling attention to the girls up on the deck. Regardless, I was the grateful silent stranger snapping away, as we magically moved through the water. It occurred to me that someone must be driving the boat who wasn’t in a Santa Suit or intoxicated and that’s when I met the captain.

Lots of logistics involved with driving a boat through dark waters, watching out for other drunk drivers in boats and navigating tight waterways, much less spinning in circles in front of the line of judges who would deem your dressed up boat as the winner of the light parade.

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I went back up on the top deck and thought about phrases like “walking the plank” or ” hard to starboard” but mostly wanted to see if I could get another shot of that damn bird.

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As the Christmas Cruise drew to a close, we watched as Spike performed one of his famous tricks, which was to pull a woman’s blouse away from her bra. I wondered who would teach a bird a trick like that… much less let a bird practice on her. It really was a neat trick and I had a really great time with these folks. They were welcoming and kind and full of fun and great to photograph.

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When I first got on board the boat I was a little suspect as I knew nothing about the passengers I would be sailing with. I never thought for a second that they might be wondering about me and if I was someone to be concerned with. Then I started thinking about how kind we all are with complete strangers. I started thinking about that Passover Seder table and how we generously welcome our home to strangers not even thinking twice about the threats that come with inviting a stranger in.

I started thinking about how kind the Christmas Cruisers were to me and how not kind, most of us are, to not strangers. How we might treat members of our own family who we’ve known our whole life, coldly and without courtesy or respect. I started thinking about how people will be getting together for the Christmas Holiday and might be dreading seeing this one or that one while breeding in the contempt of one’s familiars.

I wondered if families and loved ones around the world could forgive the conflicts carried from their past and assemble over the holidays, like complete strangers, how they would all behave. Can you imagine introducing yourself to someone you’ve known your whole life as if you are meeting them for the first time? Now that truly would be a Christmas Miracle.

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