Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Christmas Story

Christmas is not my favorite time of the year.  In fact, other than getting all mental about finding perfect gifts, I would be happy to do away with it forever.  But if I look back, and dig through this primates treasure chest of memories, there is one that sticks out.  This is the story of Christmas of 1988.

It was a bitter winter, not a lot of snow, but biting winds, kind of like this year.  I remember it well because I was homeless at the time, so other than escaping into a mall, briefly before security kicked me out, the evil wind was all I knew.

Every one of us criminals and urchins knew every corner that offered respite from the wind, and we jockeyed for place in our hidey spaces.  It was so bad that people fought over alley ways.  No one was mean; it was simply the difference between being cold and dying.  Not one of us felt being in a house was an option.

We were a rag-tag bunch of punk and metal youth, old war veteran winos and the homeless crazy population (made homeless that year by a change in the law).  Everyone had been working overtime panhandling, pulling double shifts in the cold wind, because there are more shoppers out that time of year, and they sometimes feel more inclined to give.

Between the holiday spirit/guilt and our shivering blue fingers, it was a veritable gold rush in the panhandler belt.  Even those of us that possessed excellent theft skills, sometimes came out on the street to reap the wealth of a populace that suddenly felt benevolent to us.  I even remember one guy, who we all feared because he was violent, and even he gave up “rolling” (violent muggings) to come panhandling with us.

It’s lost on understanding today, but we even wrapped presents for each other.  Mostly it was strange stuff that suited someone, or crazy things people believed in.  One of my friends collected 317 bottlecaps and wrapped them for a girl he was in love with.  She thought bottle caps were the only way to save a human soul and cried when she opened his gift.  (As an aside, she never accepted his love).

We weren’t alone.  During the so-called “fatcat” years of government, there were social agencies tasked with helping us out.  Mostly this was silly money pseudo-spent, and scary bureaucrats running the programs.  But there were a couple of people who really felt for the strange addled people of the street.

In December of 1988, budgets were being slashed, people were being fired.  It was completely a duck and cover situation. 

Everyone had an excuse to forget us on the street.

I hate to have memory die, and most of my memories seem to be dying—aging or killed brain cells, who knows?  I am trying to remember back then, the lone social worker who was trying to save us from ourselves that night, and who forsook his own Christmas to be down in the trenches with us.  His name was James Mullen.  He did not take the easy way out.

Its troubling to think of him now.  He was, at the time, in his mid thirties, past troubles with alcohol himself, and totally devoted to trying to make the streets less lethal to us; he was grumpy and impatient and a growly brother to us all.  he was a great bear on the street filled with a spirit i can barely describe.  Now, I am in the same age bracket and wonder what I have accomplished.  James may have very well saved me from myself or the streets.  I’m not sure I have given back.

I don’t know what the streets are like now, they seem cold and vicious with crack, but maybe it only looks that way because I am now a citizen, and just see scary street people.  But back then, we were dropping off like flies: suicide, overdose, car accidents.  James was trying to instill a sense of life into us.  He was trying to save us.

On that wintery 1988 night, boisterous James rallied every one of us: stinking kids, limping drunk vets and even the crazy folk; and we went to the movies.  Yes, having no hearth to go to, James brilliantly came up with the idea of the magic shadows for us.  It was a long pilgrimage down Rideau Street, constantly collecting our fallen.  I stumbled along, and someone put acid in my mouth to keep me going.   The theatre didn’t even want to let us in, and James had to vouch for all of us so we could go.  It was on his ass if we behaved badly—and badly was our specialty.

And we couldn’t quiet ourselves down, couldn’t behave like citizens;  we were just too excited.  We were like a mange of animals, and we laughed and caroused throughout the film. . None of us thanked him, we ran off to the next mania of the night.  But we all stayed alive, and we got to cavort in a togetherness that we should have had but rarely did.  It was Christmas.  And thanks to James, every forgotten soul got to feel good at Christmas that year.  In retrospect, I only feel sad that we abandoned him after, after all, he too was a lonely soul.  I hope he took pleasure in our zoo-like frenetic.

In 1988, James acted as our shepherd, and distracted us from the holocaust of pain that is the alone, demon plagued, homeless person on christmas eve.  And while never being saccharine or paternal, brought us all to a theatre, and made us feel like we were together.  When I try and summon a warm feeling for Christmas, it is back to that year that I remember.  That is my nativity.


  1. Good Christ Ape...best Christmas story ever! I am so thankful for those that helped you to save yourself from (suicide/overdose/otherstreetrelatedcrapthathappens)because my dear primate, you are worthy.
    Hope this Christmas was warmer and if it's a trade between wonder and desperation, please take wonder.
    Merry Xmas from your older wiser Aunt Brite.

  2. I feel naive posting anything here because I feel like the world you describe and the world that I know are so different and it makes me feel a bit ashamed. But I really did appreciate this story and it touched my heart to read it, and I wanted to thank you for sharing it.

  3. Thinking of that night always warms my heart