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 mélange 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.

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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