We were told to meet in front of Blimpies.
It was the first of many signs that cynicism was not welcome at the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights & Cannoli Tour. On a misty Monday night, thirty or so tourists and I boarded a deluxe tour bus that, as we entered, was thumping to the bass of a dub-step version of “Silver Bells.” We were each handed a candy cane by the bus driver. And so began our relentlessly merry journey deep into the bowels of Brooklyn.
We were headed to Dyker Heights, a neighborhood famous for its spectacularly garish Christmas light displays. The tradition started 27 years ago when resident Lucy Spata put a couple of reindeer on her lawn in honor of her mother. The neighbors complained that they were eyesores, so she put up a pair of giant toy soldiers. Thus, the one-upping began, and today the neighborhood is a virtual maze of lights, music, and the occasional dancing penguin.
Our tour guide, Paula, was born and raised in Brooklyn and obviously proud of her borough. She encouraged the tourists to shed their friendly demeanors and adopt a thick John Travolta accent, circa Saturday Night Fever. But this was only met with good-natured laughter. As we whizzed through light rain across the BQE, I started feeling as though I had unofficially joined a cult in which joy was the only acceptable emotion. It was almost eerie the way my fellow passengers greeted the dark, hulking buildings of South Brooklyn. A British couple spotted a grimy Laundromat and exclaimed, “Charming!”
Upon reaching Dyker Heights, the group scattered. I stuck with Paula, as she promised to show us “the weird stuff.” Our first stop was Lucy’s house, which, as advertised, was a clusterfuck of holiday cheer. As tourists gawked, a man sold Christmas shirts and glo-sticks from the back of his van. Across the street at Alfred Polizzotto’s house, massive nutcrackers flanked a giant animatronic Santa Claus. Apparently there was a camera in Santa’s leg that allowed the Polizzottos to communicate with visitors through a microphone inside the house. “Ho ho ho, little girl in the green coat,” Santa’s voice would boom, making kids shriek.
We traipsed past a house with over 30 inflatable cartoon characters on its lawn. A house with a racially diverse (including an Aborigine) set of caroling dolls. A house with an army of bear topiaries, one for each of the owner’s grandchildren. A house that yielded a $10,000 electrical bill. Paula beckoned us to see her favorite house — “the creepiest,” she promised. We turned the corner to see a red-faced Santa doll surrounded by what could only be described as emotionally scarred sheep babies. The tourists took a frenzy of pictures, while I remained hypnotized by the babies’ blank, soulless eyes.
The last house of the night featured lights that blinked on and off in tune to ‘N Sync’s “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays,” which was playing on a constant stream on 88.9 FM. I was exhausted by then, but my tour group remained in an eternal state of awe. We boarded the bus again, the TV screens playing Sonny and Cher’s loopy Christmas special, which featured Bernadette Peters, Captain Kangaroo, and a terrified baby. Before heading back to Manhattan, we stopped for complimentary cannoli and hot chocolate. Finally, my companions found something to complain about. “Do you have soy milk?” "Can I eat this with a fork?" “I can’t eat cheese. Even ricotta.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. At last, something familiar.