Happy Homeless Christmas

Todd Rundgren once sang, "The most beautiful love of all is the love between the ugly." It's equally true that the most beautiful acts of giving are the gifts between the poor.

Christmas season, 1989 or '90. Santa Ana. I'm helping in the kitchen of the Catholic Worker. Windows drip with condensation. Outside, the temperatures plummet along with the compassion: cops with nightsticks prod guys sleeping in the city's parks. Inside the Worker house, we're running low on food, but it's like the Bible story of multiplying loaves and fishes: a guy works the stove like an alchemist, transforming mounds of inert stuff scrounged from local grocers into mashed potatoes and gravy or meat loaves made from any kind of meat and vegetables. And butter. Lots of butter on everything. I encourage the cook to go easy on the fat for the sake of our homeless friends. "We don't want their hearts blowing up out there, do we?" I suggest gently in the form of a question. "Gotta fatten 'em up," he says—fatten them up against the numbing cold that gives the lie to sunny Southern California. Blubber is insulation. The homeless line up, their clothes an unfashionable mťlange of color and stink. The steam seems to enliven odors—tobacco, sweat and occasionally urine. I'm working potato detail in the food line, recalling what I've been told: more than food, perhaps, these people need human contact, that, in that moment of human contact, I may get more than they will: identification with the least of my brothers. But I am an atheist on the karmic arithmetic. Buried in me—not too deep—is the certainty of my own superiority: Aren't I good to pitch in once or twice a month to work among the unsheltered? Well, aren't I? They move by, mostly anonymous, until I see Mary. She recognizes me. She's in her 60s, I guess, always moving between relatives and the street. She shivers. "How you doing?" I ask. "Crappy," she says. "Yeah?" I ask. "Yeah," she says. "What's up?" "Price of everything." "Keeping warm?" "Nope." Mary pauses to tell me how cold it is outside—like the inside of a stone, she says; like the inside of an icebox, she says; like her ex-husband's heart, and now I'm paraphrasing, but she goes on and on in this way, riffing on her lifelong experience of coldness, in terms of dark sides of planets, leftover food, corpses and faces and I can't remember what else. But she's holding up the line to show me her intimate relationship with cold, and the guy behind her—African-American, about my age, and looking as if he were deposited in this kitchen by a hurricane—begins to drum his fingers on his food tray; nervously, I think. This finger drumming becomes all I can hear. It is like Poe's tell-tale heart, overwhelming Mary's rap—as cold as ice, she's saying, as snow, a penguin's heinie, a polar bear's paws, a jabbed-out cigarette—and finding its rhythmic way into the terror center of my brain, where it morphs into Morse code: he's hungry, and he's going to kill one of us. I grab the wooden potato spoon more tightly and begin to sweat. I lock eyes with the finger drummer for that sizing-up second—can I take him?—and then smile. I intend for it to look like a friendly, indulgent smile that will relax him, but it feels different, like maybe my facial file-sorter downloaded the wrong lips and I just gave him my don't-fuck-with-me smile. He drums. Mary talks about how cold it is. She mimics a shiver. Or maybe she really shivers. I prepare to kill the man if he comes after us. And then he sets down the tray and takes off his jacket, clearly preparing to fight. Mary's voice disappears beneath the roar of his beaten-up, stinking, Army-issue jacket coming off his narrow shoulders. And in a single movement, he wraps the jacket around Mary's shoulders and picks up his tray again. Mary stops talking in mid-whatever and turns to look at the young man. "You need that worse than I do," he says. She begins to take it off, but he tells her with finality, "I ain't gonna put that coat back on tonight. You wear that. You wear that." She pulls the lapel close to her face. I can smell the fetid thing from three feet away, despite the aroma of meat and white bread and potatoes and cookies and a score of other bodies. But Mary's face is the face of a woman who has just been given an outrageously expensive gift. "But what about you? It's colder than a witch's tit out there," Mary observes. "I'll be okay," the man says, and he adds, "Looks good on you." The coat hangs on Mary like a two-man tent, but she looks down on it and—I swear this is true—extends one leg balletically and bends slightly to take in the sweep of the thing. "Yes, it does," she admits. "Thank you." "Forget it," he says. "Never," she says.

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