Homeless Caroling

I'd been out of work almost a year and soon it was going to be Christmas and while we were getting by on my wife's paycheck there really wasn't much extra for gifts.  Then she saw an advertisement for work as Santa Claus.  It wasn't much money for dressing and acting like a clown but every other place I'd tried said they'd call.  The North Pole was the only place that did.


I'd gone down to the training office the week before, paid a deposit and picked up my red suit.  The time for my first training session was scheduled for 8:00 in the evening in the inner city.  It was at an office in an old warehouse in the worst part of town.  I'd had a little trouble finding the warehouse.  It wasn't because of the address but rather all of the chain-link fences around all of the buildings.  I finally found the building but had to park some distance away in an empty parking lot.  I felt silly wearing the Santa outfit as I tried to squeeze through a hole between two pieces of cut fence to get to the office.  I got to the address a little after 8:00 and found a note on the door saying that the meeting had been canceled because the instructor was ill and it was rescheduled the next evening.  I'd just about had enough of trying to earn any extra money this Christmas season. 


I walked back toward the car irritated that things were continuing just as they had for almost a year -- terrible.  When I neared my car my heart skipped and I suddenly forgot about being irritated.  There was a group of what appeared to be young toughs hanging around my car.  I would've call them "punks" but with around a half dozen of them standing there I wasn't about to do it to their faces.


As I walked up a couple of them started laughing.  "Hey Pops, this here ya car?" one of them slurred.


"Hey guys how ya doing?" trying to put the best face on the situation I continued, "Yeah that old bucket of bolts is my only means of transportation."


"Yeah well tonight it's ours," another kid laughed as he pulled out a knife, "Ya got a problem with that, Pops?"


"Come on guys.  It's my only car and I haven't worked in almost a year and..."  As the words came out I realized that I was whining and that wasn't something that Santa would do.  "Santa never whines," I thought to myself.  "Well what the hell if you want the car take it,"I said.


"How about your wallet too, old man."


I knew if I was going to get out of this in one piece I might as well go along with them at this point.  I pulled out my wallet took out the few bills inside and handed it to the guy that acted like he was the ring leader.


"Now the keys," he said.


I fished inside my Santa suit for my keys and handed them over without a word.  The last I saw of them they were driving out of the parking lot yelling and screaming about Santa giving them a present.


I really felt alone as I looked around the parking lot.  It finally dawned on me that I didn't know which way was out of this maze of fences, lots and dilapidated buildings.  I did know that I'd driven for some time getting here and knew that it'd take a while to get out.  I hoped that a police car or some other car might come around but I knew that the chances were probably slim and none.


I'd walked about a half an hour with the scenery not changing at all.  All I saw was trash everywhere and graffiti covering the walls.  At one point I had come to a dead end road that ended at the wharf.  Fences and more fences were all I found.  By this time I was really starting to get tired.  Not just from walking but the mental stress of realizing I'd been robbed.


The next direction I took went across the railroad tracks.  Judging from the condition of the tracks and the few railroad cars it didn't look like it had been used in many years.  I'd started to take short breaks between walking and during the third break I heard a voice behind me say, "Well I'll be damned, if it isn't Santa or the devil himself."


The voice scared me and as I jumped up and turned around my outfit caught on a nail sticking out of a timber and tore a hole in the pants leg.  "Who are you?"  I asked in a defensive manner.


"Oh take it easy.  I'm just one of the fellows from over at the camp," he said as he pointed down the tracks. "What'ca doing here anyhow," he asked slurring his words as if drunk?


I relaxed somewhat after seeing that he meant me no harm.  Somewhat different than my experiences in this part of town up to that point.  "Well it's a long story but some fellows stole my car and now I'm trying to get out of this area and get to a telephone so I can get some help.  Can you help me?"


"Well there's not much for some distance around here, but if you want to walk with me down to the camp they'll know better how to help."


"Is it safe down there?  I mean..."


"Oh it's OK, nobody's gonna hurt you.  Some of the boys might get a big belly laugh when I bring Santa into camp but just play along and everything'll work out."


The old man hitched up his trousers and turned to walk away.  It was really dark by this time as we slowly picked our way down the tracks.  Soon we came to a bridge and the old man took a path that went over the side of the bank.  Soon I could see the light from a fire burning in a barrel and several figures standing around the flames.


"Look who I found," the old man smiled through broken teeth, "lost his sleigh and reindeer but says we'll all get presents when he finds them."


"Now wait a minute...,"I started to counter but when everyone started laughing I realized I'd have to go through a period of joking if I wanted help.  "Can someone help me get to a telephone or show me how to get out of this area?"  I asked.


"Yeah the phones right here under this tin can," one of the fellows laughed, "I'll get the limo and we can drive out together."


At this point I realized I needed to be less urgent in my desires if I expected help.  "Yeah, I get your drift friend but..."


"I ain't your friend, hell I just saw you for the first time, these guys around here are my friends, best friends I ever had.  See we stick together."


"OK, I see your point.  Now can someone tell me which way to go to get to a telephone?"


A little guy sitting on a plastic bucket turned upside down spoke, "Follow the tracks back to the third crossing, take a left and when you get to 6th street take a right, about a mile beyond you'll find a dinner that's open all night."


"Great, thanks a lot...,"


"But you better be packing some heat when you go through some of those areas, cuz at night the streets belong to the demons."  He could tell I didn't understand when he added, "You know gangs, it's not a nice place after dark... not even for Santa Claus," he said with a big grin.


"If you’re smart you'll wait until morning, there's some extra boxes over there you can use to make a bed," another fellow said as he pointed toward a stack of old cardboard that must have once been a box.


I thought about my wife wondering what happened to me but I also thought about what would happen if I met up with some more of the types that had stolen my car.  At this point I was tired and just starting to get warm around the fire.  "I guess I'll join you all for the night, then."


One of the others picked up on my choice of words saying, "You can just be yourself around here.  That's no problem at all.  Just be yourself."


Several of the guys had wine bottles that they passed among themselves.  Once they offered me a slug but I passed by telling them I was on medication that didn't mix with alcohol.


I had been there almost two hours when one of the guys pulled out a small harmonica.  He sat down on an old piece of concrete and began to play.  He started with pieces to some old blues tunes.  There was a lot of starting, stopping and repeating himself.  After a few minutes he changed to Christmas carols.  Slowly the little conversations stopped and began to listen.  I could hear some of the men humming along.  Some of them knew the words and others only partial amounts. 


As I sat there on the ground and looked around I couldn't believe I was part of this.  My problems seemed so small compared to what these fellows endured.  Several of them just stared off into the darkness and I wondered what thoughts passed through their minds.  Did they have family somewhere wondering about them?  What had happened in so many lives to cause such a loss? 


I sat there as long as I could stand it and finally walked over to the edge of darkness with a tear coursing down my cheek.  Soon I found some of the card board and made my bed for the night.  It was cold but I survived.


Soon after day break one of the younger fellows came over to me.  As he shook me he whispered, "Come on and we'll go into town.  We'll get there before the others get going."


We were soon walking up the tracks toward town.  When we finally got to the diner I called my wife to come get me.  When she arrived I gave the fellow a few dollars for helping me get into town. 


A few weeks later I went back down to the bridge during the day and every one was gone.  The place looked even drearier during the day.  As I stood there looking at all the trash scattered around it seemed like years before that I'd sat there on the ground and sang Christmas carols with the homeless.