With Credit Card in Hand, They Found Room at the Inn

Against a black background, a silver Star of Bethlehem formed on my TV screen, grew bigger and closer until it took the shape of a gleaming Cadillac automobile. Christmas time in America and plenty of room at the inn … if you, your mate and the baby have the price, and a lot do have the price this year. What’s more, they’ve been building hotel rooms in all the Bethlehems across the nation. Take your pick. It’s a gut-buster of a holiday season.

Feliz Navidad and all the Pepto-Bismol you care to drink. This season of good cheer is like the long series of Christmases past, but with more stuff more good stuff and more crapola this year than last, and more last year than the year before. The doctors of moral theology refer to the condition as “Yule Bloat.” Santa’s sack has gotten so heavy he has to see a chiropractor after every toy run. He’s thinking of putting in for worker’s comp and then digitizing himself so he can go virtual and save his back. Well, that’s growth for you. The market loves growth, and isn’t it true that if you don’t grow, you die? You gotta grow your business, and you gotta grow your Xmas volume or you’ll fall behind and see your market cap shrink and golf score zoom.

In the midst of all this plenty, thank the good Lord that there are some poor people left: the ones that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans nor anybody else has been able to lift out of their state of benighted want. Want, of course, in U.S.A. 2000 is some distance from destitution à la Bangladesh, where hunger isn’t an exaggerated slogan but a fact.

The policy wonks argue about why some people stay happy splashing in America’s deluxe sinkholes of poverty when there are programs to help them become 24/7 strivers. It could be that the tattered remains of the once-mighty army of the destitute have been rendered powerless to extract themselves from their money-free condition in accordance with a divine plan. It is conceivable that a wearied and increasingly cynical Creator has left smidgens of poor people around so that the rest of us-we who are fixated on growing our retirement accounts and buying second homes-have a few people left on whom to work out our Yuletide charitable urges. Yes, thank you for a Lord who answers our need for the needy.

There are places, of course, like San Francisco and Santa Monica, Calif., where the non-poor and the unpoor are put upon and jostled by waves of impecunious vagrants who have vectored in on their communities. These trampy people with their shopping carts (stolen, you may be sure) despoil every park and vista with their patchy bodies and the shabby constructions they make out of plastic bags. The number of migrant poor in those towns is excessive. Instead of compliantly satisfying our need to be generous by being orderly, grateful and not too abundant, bands of the beasts make their way to the city center, where they use the straw set out in the crèche for the use of the Baby Jesus and present an unsightly, inappropriate holiday appearance. Nor are they humble when the good people do things for them. They might hit a Samaritan with a stick or stick a well-intentioned almoner in the eye. They often have poverty lawyers who demand-not ask-for their clients, thereby diminishing the opportunities for the unpoor to give to the distressed, and thus robbing them of the rich sense of self-satisfaction which comes from hearing the sound of a coin drop in a cup (and never mind that today’s beggars favor polystyrene, which doesn’t clink).

Thanks to the Lord and the Lord Mayor of New York, the city has the right number of poor people in the right places. The poor obligingly make themselves scarce in the vicinity of Rockefeller Center, or in the precincts of 57th and Fifth where the snowflake glitters. New York’s poor are to be found in the corners where they belong, waiting to have edifying and charitably pro-active acts performed on them with a minimum of pain and embarrassment. The city’s poor are considerate enough not to congregate in large numbers, which would threaten the altruistically minded unpoor.

New Yorkers know that our tame New York poor are a blessing bestowed on us by the higher powers at 1 Police Plaza. They are an occasion for us, in our outlandish abundance, to give-and to bask in others’ approval of our generosity. Hence, in the days immediately before Thanksgiving and Christmas, Gothamites can be observed exchanging the addresses of soup kitchens and other eleemosynary institutions where the comfortably situated can (however briefly) rediscover the satisfaction of serving another.

We have so many other reasons to look around us with immoderate contentment. Modern America would not turn away the Holy Family, provided Joseph had a Visa card; I can hear the authoritative television voice telling us they don’t accept American Express at the inn. If Mary and Joseph belong to an H.M.O., the birth should be fairly copacetic. Since Joseph is a carpenter, and since it goes without saying how hard it is get a carpenter these days, we can presume he’s bringing home enough money to pay for health insurance, although at $1,000 or $2,000 a month even skilled tradespeople may have some trouble coming up with the payment.

Mary’s in halfway decent shape. She will get six months’ unpaid maternity leave from her job, every hour of which she will need to pose for all those paintings of her supplying her Child with protective antibodies via the old but still approved mother’s-milk method. After that, the trouble starts. She’ll be wanting to go back to work and resume her career as the Mediatrix of All Graces, and if you don’t think that’s a full-time job, lemme tell ya ….

Despite Mary’s having an unusual relationship with her son’s father, from a material point of view things are good for her and Joseph. They have the S.U.V., the house, three major credit cards, the $1,500 barbecue set on the rear deck, a 200-inch TV screen, two cell phones, closets full of clothes, a desktop and a laptop and their own Web page-Holyfamily.com. They intended to display a different Old Master picture of their Baby Jesus every day, until they got an e-mail from Microsoft informing them that Bill Gates owned the rights and the price was a little beyond them.

Although this couple has more than a passing familiarity with the miraculous, child care has them stumped. They’ve read the latest studies which say the single greatest predictor of successfully navigating the shoals of growing up is the amount of time a parent spends with the child. Children left alone are bad risks, and the Baby Jesus has, almost from the git-go, shown a tendency to wander about. They caught him over at the synagogue lecturing to the old men who, it must be said, were astonished but not pleased.

Mary and Joseph have been trying to think through how they can bring up the Baby Jesus so he doesn’t run afoul of the law and come to a bad end. It could happen. One of them, they’ve decided, must stay at home and look after the child. One of them will have to give up his or her job, but they can’t live off one salary and they don’t understand how a family can have so many things and not be able to stay home with the kid. The only solution they could come up with is to cut expenses by simplifying the way they live. Ratchet down the old lifestyle a couple of cogs.

But they’ve found out it’s very expensive to live simply. The fanciest things-the slickest stuff, the hippest technojunk-is as cheap as cheap can be. Living without all that stuff costs a fortune. “Do you have any idea, Joseph, what’s involved in cooking your own food?” Mary asks as she opens a can of formula for her Child. Her husband shakes his head no, and they send out for pizza.