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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Tom and Jerry Christmas Tree: A $1,000 PG&E Bill That Spreads Joys Across SF

Posted By on Wed, Dec 10, 2014 at 4:06 PM

click to enlarge homofiles.jpg
One of the best holiday traditions in temperate, snow-less San Francisco is the “Tom and Jerry House” on 21st Street between Church and Sanchez, almost at the top of Liberty Hill. For over a quarter-century, Tom Taylor and Jerry Goldstein have decked out their house in an elaborate display of lights and oversized ornaments, with candy canes, carolers, and Santa stationed nightly through Christmas Eve. An antidote to the season’s hyper-commercialization, it’s completely free.

I followed Tom around the property as eight elves (i.e., a crew of no-nonsense workmen) were busily assembling Christmas all around us with only one day remaining before opening night. My first question was how they plan to deal with the impending Storm of the Decade and its 40-mph winds. Although Jerry later told me by phone that they’ve “found ornaments down the block and in Dolores Park” after heavy storms, Tom was fairly sanguine about it, smoothly interrupting himself to correct minor details as we crossed and re-crossed the site.

“Structurally, we really go all out because of the wind,” he said. “We’ve made mistakes in the past. We made ornaments out of soda bottles and used hot glue, which, in the expansion and contraction at night, comes loose, so it has to be mechanically fastened. Through the years you learn all this stuff. Most of the ornaments have holes in them so if water gets into them it drains out.”

Putting together a mini-amusement park and decorating a 65-foot tree is obviously quite an undertaking. The wood frames for the presents are kept on-site, but the rest is coded and stored in a warehouse in SoMa. And it gets bigger every year, as people donate large stuffed animals. It’s clearly engulfed Tom’s life, such that when I asked if he felt like he had a choice in the matter, his reply was a flat “No.”

click to enlarge DAVID HEMPLING
  • David Hempling
Dropping upwards of $1,000 on PG&E for the month of December (plus unspecified candy cane expenditures) is unquestionably a labor of love, although Tom demurred when I pressed him about the full costs: “Oh, we don’t figure that one out or we’d definitely stop” going to such great lengths to spread holiday cheer. But there may be another reason, as well. Evidently, he and Jerry have been asked to give to various philanthropies, and Tom is skeptical of thick administrative layers that get between benefactor and beneficiary. “And it’s like, what do you do with that money except pay people to be in an office? So we say, ‘We spend it on this, and we get to see people happy.’” 

Although Tom and Jerry have been together for 41 years, and their tradition began in the late '80s when prospects were grimmer for the gays, there isn’t too much of a pride angle. “Once or twice we used to have little gay flags up there, but through the years that sort of lost out. We don’t charge anything, and we give out the candy canes to the kids. That says, ‘Oh, gay people do this. What do you do?’"

He’s certainly not a religious man (although Jerry is a practicing Jew). I asked if Tom was an atheist, and he shrugged, “I guess so. I don’t run around wearing a badge.”

What do the neighbors on this affluent block think of all this ruckus? “At first some of them bitched,” Tom said, “but now it’s become a thing. It made their home values go up.” (maybe the correlation is direct or maybe it isn't, but the block is undeniably quite affluent)Consider this: Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan's house is just down the street. When I asked if the endless construction redirected any of the neighbors' ire, Tom threw me a look. “These guys want to move into a normal neighborhood. Go to Hillsborough, one of those big mansions. They’re trying to make these working-class houses something they’re not.”

If this all sounds a bit tart, Tom’s heart can melt like anyone else’s. His favorite memories are of people who come back year after year, saying, “This is my Christmas” or “I came here as a kid and I’m still coming here.” (For Santa’s part, the same guy has played the role for the last 12 years.) And Tom will sometimes sneak into the crowd, where he goes unrecognized. He then handed me an extension cord to plug in, leaned forward to connect two sections of model railroad track, and grinned. “You hear people telling stories about us when they don’t know us, which is fun to listen to."

Check out the Tom and Jerry Christmas Tree, 3560 21st St., Dec. 10-24, 6:30-9:30 p.m.
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About The Author

Pete Kane

Pete Kane

Pete Kane is a total gaylord who is trying to get to every national park before age 40

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