Written for JusJoJan 2017, this tale fits well within the spirit of Christmas as a time of sharing and caring.
The impatience was growing as she unlocked the shelter doors that blustery afternoon. Wind swirled around foot-stomping, hand-rubbing, shivering line. A quick head-count worried her; were there enough coats and gift bags for everyone? She had brought in arms full of coats from the van this week – dry cleaned and mended for free. Then sorted by size and gender. The gift bags containing a pair of warm socks, mitts, and a scarf came from classroom challenges around the city.
Even if the flush of Christmas cheer giving had passed, the bitterness of winter still stalked the streets. A white nor’easter was predicted; she wondered if any other volunteers would show up. She hated to close the doors to the crowd, but she needed to get the coffee on, the donuts out, and the myriad of things to be done before the handout. Just as she was about to lock it, a young man slipped through – looking like he was trying to beat the line. A cry went up from the folks, and it stood to get ugly.
“I’m here to help,” he reassured me, in a voice loud enough for the frozen Joe and Janice at the head of the line. “Heard you needed volunteers, and I ain’t don’t nothing of note today,” he added, shrugging off his thin jacket and unwinding a mile-long scarf. His face was a map of street life; his arms under a thick flannel shirt would be a road map no doubt.
“I’ll get the coffee and donuts going – damn hungry and could use a cup – where ya keep the supplies?” I was under the spell of his pale green eyes, it seemed, as I motioned to the pantry and headed to the distribution room. I snapped on the lights, and surveyed the weeks of work.
Reasonably tidy stacks of coats, almost neat rows of gift bags filled the temporary tables set up in the hall. Rayleen’s signs taped to the walls indicated size, gender, age-group for the children’s section. A last minute toy drive had scored some stuffed animals for the littlest ones, and school supply miscellanea for the older kids. The room was ready. But . . . it was more than a one woman operation today. I pulled out my cell and started speed dial of the regulars, the trust worthy, the ones with storm-based excused. A few, with all wheel drive and as much zeal for testing their vehicle against the elements as for the cause were either on their way, or getting their putting on their boots.
Maybe the new volunteer read minds or faces, but he said when the smell of coffee drew me out of the hall, “A lot of no shows, huh?” He shoved a mug of coffee with cream (how did he know) and a donut at me. “Don’t worry, I made some calls, too.”
I took a second look at him – no he didn’t look like an angel, looking for his wings. Just a cleaned up street guy. “Ready for me to let the folks into the kitchen – it’s too damn cold out there,” I said. As if on cue, the wind lashed the doors with gusts of snow. “Sure, my troops should be here right about now.”
A loud bang reverberated through the kitchen as the door shook from the force of the knock. He sidled over to the door, turning the latch, and letting in five scruffy individuals – 3 men and 2 women – with beatific smiles. They shrugged off various sorts of coats and jackets, unwound scarves and said, “Let ‘em in. We’re ready.”
So, I opened the doors, and in shuffled the crowd of frozen forlorn homeless, under-housed individuals and families. Their eyes were often dull – hope long kicked out of their lives. The children were quiet, clinging to their mother or father, recent arrivals who didn’t know the language or the customs. Street people who found even the time in the kitchen claustrophobic. The veterans who had seen too much, the teens who knew too much, the adults who had experienced too much.
All accepted their hot drink – coffee, tea, and hot coco (where did that come from) laced with real cream, stevia or sugar, or honey – supplies I hadn’t seen in the pantry or fridge. The donuts were astounding – fresh, of every assortment – as if the boxes I’d picked up yesterday had been the wrong ones, and I’d got some for some special catered event. Giant cookies for the kids; biscuits for the older folks and babies. Milk if desired or required.
The feast kept all happy – there was laughing and teasing and thankfulness as Green Eyes and his friends moved among the tables, offering refills, more treats, or an ear for a story or two. By the time the storm blew in the crazies with the Subarus and Jeeps, a party atmosphere had warmed the crowd from the inside out.
No one was in a hurry to get their coat, so Green Eyes promised more of the same afterwards. The group filed into the hall, kids running to look at everything at once, chattering amongst themselves even if the language was different. Adults tried on the wares, eyeing themselves in the full-length mirrors.
I doubted Green Eye’s promise – I assumed I’d find the kitchen empty of people, but full of refuse to be collected. But, within minutes, the kitchen was stocked as before – as if the 100 or so folks hadn’t feasted on treats for an hour or so. I looked at Green Eyes, suspicious and thankful. This was the sort of story that made me cry happy tears. Which I found I was doing as one dripped onto my hand.
Green Eyes came over with a napkin, saying, “Sure looks like you needs one of these. Somethin’ wrong?”
I shook my head. “How?,” I whispered
“Don’t really matter,” he said, “Just a tangible sorta thankful for what you do.”
“Can I hug you – are you substantial enough for that?” “Sure thing,” he answered, “That’s my reward.”
image part of FDR Memorial Sculptures in Washington, DC