I furiously scribbled a document, losing sense to the tick of real life. Christmas was upon me. Nonetheless, I stepped out to Staples. On the way, I spotted a waif on a traffic island. A dirty backpack weighed down her right shoulder. She grasped a plastic cup for dimes and nickels. To eye contact or not to eye contact?
That was the question.
It was a long stoplight. I do not nickel-and-dime donations to desperate people on street corners. Many are cons. Others are addicts. Some are truly out in the cold. The creed: do not hand out money; contribute through your church or recognized services/charities.
This girl did not approach cars. She stood there. Very tiredly. With her back against the pole.
Once in a while, I keep faith and believe what I see. I offer that soul a warm sandwich, a side, and a bottle of water. (Am I such a profound human being? No. Might I become that person on the corner? So precarious is life. Lady Fortune will turn her wheel.)
After my toner stop, I joined a long line at the next-door Subway to buy the girl’s lunch. People with packages chatted. Strangers. One small child spelled out the names of sandwiches and then tried to sound out the syllables. Somehow, “marinara” became “marina,” and everybody smiled. A lone, determined immigrant worked the assembly line, rang up the order, made change, washed and re-gloved his hands, and started again.
It was slow. Nobody complained. Random remarks about holiday movies, hot toys, and new restaurants hung in the air for a moment and disappeared. The child re-spelled the entire sandwich board. The guy behind the counter methodically labored. Finally, clutching a bag with a turkey sandwich, a side, and a beverage (iced tea seemed more festive than water), I sped away to find the girl on the corner. She had disappeared.
Christmas is mystery. My car turned around. I walked back in the Subway. The guy behind the counter looked up, mildly surprised. The crowd had cleared out. I left him a $20 tip. He nodded graciously.
I went home and ate the turkey sandwich. After all, it had all the toppings I liked: provolone cheese, tomato, spinach, a pinch of salt, a toss of pepper, and generous squirts of mayonnaise.
“It’s Christmas Eve. It’s . . . it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer. . . . We . . . we smile a little easier. . . . We . . . we cheer a little more. . . . For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be.”—Frank Cross, “Scrooged”
I remember long ago when my father, the on-call surgeon, spent his Christmas saving the life of a woman whose husband stabbed her multiple times with a roasting fork. A fight. Over a turkey carcass? Christmas is mystery.