Last Saturday we took a bus tour of the Holiday Lights, and doesn’t that just sound so seasonal? A double decker bus, snacks and libations, a merry tour of the town. Well. The bus was indeed a genuine British double-decker, and you had to give it credit for surviving the Blitz in such reasonable shape. The door kept popping open. There was a hole in the floor through which poured a festive mixture of frigid air and diesel fumes. (Not a problem for me; I like the smell of diesel exhaust.) “Beer?” said our host – he’s my wife’s uncle, a man of unquenchable good spirits. I declined, since it was a little early and I’d had nothing to eat all day. My wife noted that Gnat hadn’t had any bladder action in many hours, and there wasn’t a loo in the Lodekka, as the vehicle was called. (Technically a Bristol LD Model something or other.) “We’ll stop after an hour,” said one of the hosts.

“After an hour,” I said. I had anticipated a 30-minute spin around the burbs.

“It’s a two-hour ride,” she explained.

Oh. My.

Well, we started winding our way through the burbs, past one utterly unspectacular display after the other. Ooh, a strand of white lights on trees. Ahh, a strand of multi-colored lights on the shrubs. But! The beer and wine flowed freely, and everyone on both levels was getting more festive by the moment. But after ten minutes it was apparent we were rattling along a service road in a commercial district; no lights at all, unless you count the traffic signals. The bus was noisy and wheezy; it rode like a slab of stone surfing a landslide and the driver ground the gears with such force you expected large chunks of the vehicle to be birthed from the engine and bounce into the windshield of the cars behind us. We went up Portland, which had no lights, turned to Chicago, which had fewer. Our host told us that we’d do Minnehaha parkway, which was no doubt blazing with lights, then tour lovely Summit Avenue in St. Paul, where the plutocrats’ mansions would no doubt dazzle the eye; then the Lakes in Minneapolis, then home. I looked at my watch: We were 40 minutes into the journey. And I was having a hard time communicating with my smaller toes. The major toes were reporting in, but the intermediary toes were having difficulty keeping a line open, and the smaller, Baltic toes had not been heard from for a while.

There was no heat. Add that fact to the vehicle’s porous construction, and it was apparent we were all going to freeze to death.

No lights of note on the parkway, Over the bridge to St. Paul. We were going to head up the riverfront boulevard, but drat the luck: the driver noted that the tunnel beneath the bridge was three inches too short, and any attempt to go through the passageway would decapitate the people on the upper desk. Dreadful pall that would throw on the night; dreadful. So we found ourselves turning around in the parking lot of a darkened Ford assembly plant, heading up a commercial strip, and turning north on Cleveland, which was occupied by college students. And we know how they decorate with lights: one strand, thrown on the balcony ironically. By now the beer drinkers were worried, and demanded that we stop. So we pulled up to a 7-11, and forty people got out to use the can.

Keep in mind that we’ve been on the road for an hour and 15 minutes, we have seen no displays of any consequence, we haven’t eaten, our extremities have that nice serene blue you find on the default Apple desktop motif, and when the two-score revelers have drained the tank we will continue on away from our starting point.

I bought two hand-warming packets, which did little good. Everyone bought something. Only fair. On we went.

Summit had some lights, but by then people’s expectations had been raised too high. We wanted to see floodlit spectaculars complete with a dozen elves with perpetually-firing Roman Candles implanted in their buttocks. We pulled into downtown St. Paul just in time to hit the traffic for the hockey game, but at least this meant we got a nice long slow roll around Rice Park. Uncle Gary said we’d just take the freeway home and call it quits; no one complained, because we were now two hours into the voyage and hadn’t yet seen a display of any consequence. Going back would be nice, people seemed to think.

I went upstairs to inform people we’d be heading back now. It was the sort of situation where you can sing out “A Three Hour Cruise! A Three Hour Cruise!” and everyone instantly gets it.

“There’ll be traffic from the football game,” one fellow said quietly. I almost didn’t hear him over the engine noise, the wind, the grinding of the gears and lamentations of the passengers. But he had figured it out perfectly. The 4th quarter was a few minutes old, according to a young man with headphones who’d been following the clash of titans. The home team had the game in hand. By the time we hit the 94 / 35 W interchange we would be steaming into an automotive exodus that would clog the highways from downtown to the beltway. So! Driver, let us take an alternate route. Down a (non-festive) commercial strip. Close; getting there. The highway is just 4 miles away, but then the call went up again: WE MUST URINATE. AHEM, URINATION IS ON THE MENU AGAIN. HALLO? WE CANNOT IGNORE THE INSISTENT PRESSURE OF OUR BLADDERS. TWO FOUR SIX EIGHT, WE MUST UNZIP AND MICTURATE. Or words to that effect. So we pulled into a sports-bar parking lot; 25 got off. As a testament to our team spirit, 25 returned. A peculiar mood had gripped the bus: we were united by strife, bound together by privation, half in the bag, and pointed in the general direction of Home. Nothing so improves a dreary experience like the realization that it will yield a story we can embellish. Give us five years, and the bus will be pulled by donkeys, the temperature in the minus 20s, the liquor nothing more than paint thinner and windshield-wiper fluid.

Ten minutes later, we hit the highway. Fifteen minutes after that, we were back in the neighborhood from which we had begun. And as we rolled up the street to our hosts’ home, laughter erupted from every corner of the bus. It took you a second to realize why, but only a second.

Every house on the block was lit up. It was the most magnificent display we’d seen all night.


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