Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Hobo Christmas Morn

The following is one of my personal favorites. Written Christmas Day 2006 and never edited (ducks various thrown objects), here it is for your raw reading pleasure on this St. Stephen's Day. Remember Good King Winceslaus looking out on the Feast of Stephen?~~GH

I wake on Christmas morning to the children's excited "Good morning, Momma." Dog-breath kisses are exchanged between us along with regards of the day and I stumble to the kitchen to check on my roast. This year I decided to slow-roast it at a low temperature for three times as long. Not good for fuel efficiency but perfect for human efficiency. 

It occurs to me we should feed the birds. I read someplace you'll have good luck all year long if you feed the birds on Christmas morn. 

"You can't feed the birds," my husband chides. "It's pouring rain down; there are no birds today."

"Still, we should try…" 

My youngest pipes in. "We didn't feed the birds, but we gave a hobo a sandwich." It's too early for my brain to process this strange statement. Hobo? Where did she learn the word hobo? And how did she come to give a "hobo" a sandwich?

Our son James is here to spend Christmas with us, fresh from the arms of his live-in girl friend and the walls of his new apartment. "He was standing outside and asked if he could have a sandwich," James explains. 

"I made him a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich… and I gave him a cookie," my daughter adds hesitantly, as if I might be angry at her generosity.

"That was sweet, Kelly. I like your heart." The smile on her face tells me she's glad I approve of her decision.

It's a dreary day, a Monday and Christmas too. The soup kitchen across the street doesn't operate today. I expected a line of homeless and elderly to queue up outside but the news spread along the invisible grapevine, and no one shows up to stand miserably in the rain.

All day long I imagine the faceless "hobo" who asked for a sandwich and was given a sandwich… and a cookie. I feel like crying. I wish I could have given him more. He surely smelled the roast cooking. He probably knew I routinely feed the overflow from the soup kitchen.

The rain falls, bitterly cold, cold to the bone kind of cold. I'd hate to be standing in the rain, waiting for a sandwich or a soup kitchen to open on a day like this, much less a Christmas morning. Was the man thankful? Did the sandwich/cookie touch his heart? Did he breathe a sigh of relief? Or did he curse the rain and God, and the soup kitchen, and my child?

James tells me Aqualung died. Our city's homeless mascot, Bill Dunn, showed up around town in 1971 pushing a shopping cart with an impossible stack of grocery bags towering above. His wild long hair and beard reminded us teens of Jethro Tull's Aqualung characterization, and the nickname stuck. Bill was never a threat to little girls and as far as I know, he didn't check out their pretty panties. No one I knew was afraid of him.

I sat at a lunch counter having a slice of pecan pie and a chocolate milkshake – disgusting to think of now but manna from heaven for the fifteen-year-old girl I was at the time. Aqualung – I didn't learn Bill's name until years later – moved along the sidewalk and I watched him through the restaurant's window. A man flicked a cigarette into the gutter and Aqualung scurried toward it. Birdlike in his movements, he darted and snatched up the smoldering butt before it went out. He smiled and took a whiff of it, then smoked the remaining tobacco.

Disgusted, dismayed and yet fascinated, I watched him finish the stranger's cigarette. I couldn't eat my food. I left a small tip for the waitress and with my legs trembling so hard I feared I'd collapse on the sidewalk, I walked up to Aqualung and shoved two brand-new cigarettes into his grimy hand. "Here you go," was all I could manage to squeak out. His eyes twinkled with such life and light that I was surprised. Everything else about him was dingy and smelly and dark. But those eyes…

The years passed and Aqualung remained a fixture in our town. At one time he was a hero, helping to solve a murder. He went missing one winter and the police tracked him down to someplace in North Carolina. He'd gone to a warmer area to wait out the winter. It amused me, a homeless man taking a vacation.

Our paths crossed numerous times over the next thirty years. Sometimes I'd be eating out and see him tucked into a booth in the back of the restaurant sipping coffee and eating dinner. Aqualung was never poor. In fact, he was rumored to be a millionaire and have countless bags of money in his shopping cart. I'd ask if he needed anything. Sometimes I sat with him, asking how he was and making small talk. It was important to me that he knew I saw him as human. He was always polite, rational if not always completely tuned into the moment.

Last year a reporter did a feature story on Aqualung for the newspaper. I didn't learn anything new but felt gratified that younger generations would know a little about our Aqualung. 

Now it is Christmas day and Aqualung is dead. My son said Bill "Aqualung" Dunn left his fortune to a son. My first thought was what woman had lain with Aqualung… I felt ashamed. At some time he had been some woman's son, another woman's lover. He hadn't always been Aqualung. The world felt a little smaller just then as I thought about my own son and his woman. Some tragedy could befall James that would drive him to live on the streets. I thought about the birds, the soup kitchen, and the hobo who'd asked for a sandwich. 

And I cried, not for the hobo, or the birds, or even for the rain. I cried for Bill Dunn's mother, and myself. 

1 comment:

Chuck Anziulewicz said...

Thanks for the tribute to Bill Dunn. There are still people that wonder whatever became of him.

I recall in December 2004, with Christmas fast approaching, I was feeling particularly low. The holidays can be tremendously difficult for people going through heartbreak and grief. One sees all the festive decorations, people shopping for gifts for their loved ones, and it all becomes too great for ones heart to bear. Even the simple act of going grocery shopping becomes tremedously depressing, because it was something I used to do with my ex, who had left me earlier in the year. Amazing how something so utterly domestic and mundane could cause my heart such pain, simply because it was part of our domestic routine together.

Well, on that dreary December day I was doing exactly that: Grocery shopping. I had just parked my car in the Kroger's lot and was heading toward the store, and as I did I took notice of what seemed to be a homeless guy asking someone for change on the front sidewalk. He was carrying what I assumed were his belongings in a large plastic garbage bag slung over his shoulder. He had long black hair and a very bushy black beard. At first I didn't give him much thought, being immersed in my own emotional blackness.

When I had finished my shopping and was driving home, driving over the bridge that crosses the Kanawha River to the section of town I live in ... and suddenly there was that same homeless guy, just having crossed the bridge himself by foot, plodding along with his worldly possessions in a plastic sack, and making his way down a metal stairway to another thorofare. And suddenly I felt very, VERY BAD for him. So I drove off the bridge, parked my car in a residential area, and walked back toward where I had last seen him.

Sure enough, there he was, plodding along. Where did he live? Somewhere under the bridge? I don't know. I caught up with him and said, "Excuse me!" The man turned around to look at me, and he was an absolute fright. Perhaps he was close to my age, although I had no way of knowing. In addition to the wild black hair and bushy beard, he had these wild, piercing, insane blue eyes, maybe all of five teeth, and spittle and snot running down the front of his moustache and beard. I said to him, "Do you need any money?" and he just grinned a crazy toothless grin at me and replied in a thick southern drawl, "Oh, I ain't got none, no sir, no, I ain't had any money in LONG time, no sir."

I reached into my pocket and gave him everything I had, amounting to perhaps thirty dollars or so in assorted bills and change, and I said, "Here, it's all I got." And this guy just looks at the money in his hands like it's the strangest thing in the world, and he mumbles some kind of a thank you, and I walk back to my car, get in, shut the door, start the engine, lean over the steering wheel ... and just burst into tears. I felt so utterly, utterly ashamed at myself. Here I am, feeling bad because of my broken heart, and yet THIS guy doesn't even have a roof over his head. Here I am, able to go to Kroger's and buy whatever kinds of food I'd care for, and this poor man is living like an animal right before Christmas. I just cried and cried.