Happy Homeless Christmas

Art is a lie that gets at the truth, Picasso is supposed to have said. So consider this lie: Jesus and his followers go to the temple, where they observe rich men make ostentatious, lavish and very public gifts. They are followed by a poor widow who—quietly, maybe even slightly ashamed—offers what is variously translated as a mite, copper coins or a farthing. It's nothing, basically. And Jesus asks his disciples which of these gifts was greatest? The disciples—being simple fisherfolk with simple fisherfolks' understanding of the value of money—suggest it is the wealthy man's gift. Jesus turns the world on its head: it is the widow's mite, he says, "for all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living."

A few years later, another holiday season. Annie, a longtime visitor to the Worker House, approaches me with a garbage bag. She's in her mid-40s but looks almost 60. "I lost my kids in the crack," Annie once told me. It's her attempt at humor, to make more bearable the burden of losing something as intimate as your arm or your face. Her face was lost in the crack, too: it's like the subject of a Dorothea Lange photo, not the haggard people but the windswept dirt farms of the Dust Bowl, brown and riven with creases. Her eyes are almost invariably flat, like she's peering up at you from beneath oil. Except this day. Now Annie's smiling. She holds out the garbage bag and asks me to keep an eye on it. "But don't look inside," she says. Okay, I say. "Okay?" she asks. Okay. "You won't look inside? It's personal," she says. I won't look inside. "You'll keep it somewhere safe? And you won't look inside?" Check, I say. She smiles, promises to return shortly, and leaves. When she's out on the street 40 feet away, she shouts without turning around, "Don't look inside!" I put the bag in a broom closet, and I go back to cleaning up a huge mess I'd created when, attempting to help at breakfast, I kicked out the leg of a folding table and dumped eight or 10 pitchers of juice on the floor. I forget the garbage bag, forget Annie, go home. A few days later, I return. There's not much to do, so I grab a broom. Annie's bag is still in the closet, next to sorry-looking brooms and mops. Less out of curiosity than cleanliness, I look inside Annie's bag: garbage. Old newspapers, old wrapping paper, a length of hose, some old running shoes and a T-shirt with the name of a local hospital on it. I consider throwing it out, but there's no telling what the homeless hold valuable. I leave it there. Days later, I return for a Mass. It's a crazy left-wing holiday Mass replete with edgy homeless people stepping out for cigarettes and the opportunity to burn off a little nervous energy and me being nervous about sharing with the homeless a cup of fruit juice standing in for wine standing in for the blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But Annie is next to me. I take a sip and hand her the cup. "This is the blood of Jesus Christ," I say, "who died so that we are forgiven." Annie is supposed to say, "Amen." She doesn't. She says—loudly enough for the priest and others to hear, but not accusatory—"What'd you do with my bag?" I shush her. I don't mean to be demeaning, but I am. "Don't shush me," she says. "Where'd you put my bag?" I buy myself time: "After the Mass, Annie." But—here's the embarrassing part—what DID I do with the bag? For a moment, I cannot recall. It's lost to me. After we sing the finale, I join the exodus of homeless people streaming out through the narrow door and walk quickly to the broom closet. The bag is still there. It's a miracle: in a house that pitches garbage almost before it hits the receptacle, Annie's garbage bag has remained unscathed. Undumped. Unemptied. Unsullied in its sulliness. I return it to her. She asks me if I'm sticking around. I am. Fifteen minutes later, she returns with three bundles of old wrapping paper. She hands them to me. "Merry Christmas," she says. I take them and open each. She's like a kid, explaining each deficiency as it is exposed. "I didn't have ribbon or tape," she says. And by now, you have figured out what I received: in the first package, a length of rubber hose for self-defense in tough neighborhoods. In the second, a pair of old running shoes, far too small for me and with the soles worn smooth. In the third, an obviously used T-shirt, size small, with the name of a hospital across the chest. Thanks, I say. "It's nothing," she says, and adds, "but, you know, it's the thought."

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