A Christmas Idle

Detail of a photo by Doug Bruns.
Detail of a photograph by Doug Bruns.

A Christmas Idle
by Paul Foster

I’ve spent a lot of time at the intersection of Franklin Street and Marginal Way — heading to work in the morning, heading down to New Hampshire on weekends, going to Trader Joe’s or Hannaford seemingly every day. All those minutes every week, idling in my car, waiting for the light to change. You’ve spent a lot of time there, too. I know that.

Two days before Christmas, I was headed to Hannaford with a list of ingredients for a last-minute holiday salsa, and there was the little dog in the yellow vest. And you, of course. But, truth be told, my eyes were drawn to your dog before you — it was a night so frigid that animals had to wear clothes. I was too far back to read your cardboard sign, but I knew what it said. You were cold. You needed help. The old familiar carols playing on my radio spoke of “good will toward men.” What would I do?

I know it’s lame, but being in that left-turn lane on Franklin is always awkward for me. I’m in a warm car, listening to music, on my way to spend a couple hundred dollars on food. And there’s another human being standing next to my car on the median, in the cold, with little to sing about and less to eat. Sometimes I fiddle with my radio controls or pretend to be deep in thought or act as though something in the distance has caught my attention.

Other times I give money. Very little money. Less than I could afford to give. I was raised in a church that worships a man who instructed his followers to give all their money to the poor and, though I no longer practice or believe, I try to stay mindful that the metal of the car door separating me from you is very, very thin.

On trash night, I separate returnables into their own bags and place them on top of the recyclables. I’ve seen a minivan making the rounds in the dark, its occupants picking through the blue bins. When they get to my place, it’s just grab and go. Whenever I receive a gift card for a restaurant or coffee shop, I hand it out the window on a corner, thinking as much about bathroom access as the food or warmth. If I eat out and wind up with leftovers, they seldom make it to my refrigerator. If I can’t find someone to give them to, I leave the food where it might easily be found.

No one’s ever told me they think I’m a fool to do these things, but I can see it in their eyes. They’ve heard stories about people who borrow crutches to look more needy as they stand on the corner, stories about bringing dogs to appeal to those who might care more about a hungry animal than a person who is, in their eyes, obviously lazy. I’m sure some of these stories are true. But I don’t care. If I’ve been scammed by 9 out of 10 people I’ve ever helped, those odds are good enough for me. From where I stand, there is more god in the passing of a dollar bill out the driver’s side window than there is in the songs echoing in the rafters of my childhood church.

I’ve been told by people who work in social services that giving money might reinforce negative behaviors, so I shouldn’t do it. But if I give you a few bucks and you buy a beer instead of food or a bus ticket, can I really blame you? That’s what I’d do. Standing out there in the cold, facing the prospect of sleeping outside that night, my goals would be warmth and a way to stop myself from thinking — and probably not in that order. Maybe a Band-Aid sometimes is as valuable as a stitch.

I’ve been told that a simple acknowledgement is enough, that all I’ve got to do is roll down my window and say hello. But I can’t buy this. There is an unspoken interaction going on: You are asking for help and I am making a decision about whether or not to offer it. A simple “hello” is a side-step. And isn’t pretending that your question isn’t there the same as pretending you aren’t there?

What I want to do is ignore the green arrow, ignore the honking horns, ignore the grocery list in my pocket, and have a conversation with you. How long is the cycle of one green arrow to the next? A minute or two? I’ll bet you know. Don’t I owe you at least that much of my time? Don’t I owe that time to you more than to the people I might irritate behind me? They’re in warm cars like mine. What’s their damned hurry?

I want to read every word on your sign and think about why you chose those words. I want to ask you when you last ate, what you do when you need to take a piss, where you plan on sleeping. I want to ask you what you chose to name your dog, and why you chose yellow for his vest. I want to ask you why you lean on the chain-link fence — whether your legs or your spirit is weak. I want to know why you are outside the car and I am in it, and what you’d do if it were reversed.

But idling there two days before Christmas, I didn’t ignore the arrow when it turned green. I ignored you and your dog, instead. I drove right past. I needed mango and cucumber and scallions and limes. I needed chips and some razor blades and some stickers for my nephew. I could not be delayed.

There was a festive atmosphere in the store that night. People seemed happy and, as I moved among them, I wondered what you might buy if I’d handed you a twenty. What did you need right now, out there in the cold? I started making a mental list. Then I started putting those things in my cart, shopping for both of us.

I bought you a box of chocolate-and-peanut-butter Clif Bars, because they have 20 grams of protein and have been a lifesaver for me when my hunger’s out of control and I’m starting to get anxious. I bought you a few bananas, because of the potassium and because they’re easy to carry around. I bought you a Gatorade for the electrolytes. I bought you two bottled waters, because I figured dehydration must be a danger, even in winter. I bought you an orange juice for the vitamin C, because I can’t imagine having to stand out on a corner with a cold. I bought you a small bottle of eggnog, because it bugged me that the store was all decked out in Christmas lights and garland, yet everything I was getting for you was practical. I bought you a chocolate Santa for the same reason. And I bought two things for your dog: chicken-meatball treats and a box of chicken-and-sweet-potato canine pops. The bags of dry food would have lasted longer, but they were enormous.

Then it occurred to me that I wanted to give you a card. I didn’t want to assume your religion, so I found one with a cardinal on the cover and these words: “Happy Holidays to Someone Special.” That seemed right. The cardinal was perched on a snow-covered branch and the scene had been dusted with glitter. I pictured this glitter getting on your fingers, then ending up on your face, catching the glint of headlights. Inside, the verse read:

Hoping the season brings
one happy moment,
one favorite memory,
one special wish
at a time —
and may it
be just the beginning
of a wonderful new year
for you.

In the parking lot, I separated your groceries into two plastic bags and wrote a message in the card: Stay warm, take care of that pooch and don’t lose hope. This will pass. I believe in you. Merry Christmas. I don’t know why I wrote “I believe in you.” It might have been a profound thing to say if we were both 12-year-olds. But I really meant it. It came from a tiny, glowing space inside me that still knows no cynicism or doubt.

I sealed the envelope and set out along Marginal Way. But when I got to Franklin, it was as I feared: you were gone. I’d taken too long. I knew you were on foot and thought I could catch you. I took a right, thinking maybe you’d just switched corners to try the customers exiting Whole Foods. But I didn’t see you there, either. I pulled a U-turn at Fox and headed back toward Marginal, idling again at the now-vacant corner. I passed the Miss Portland Diner and, rather than turn right toward Hannaford, I went left, toward downtown. The Time and Temperature clock informed me it was now 9 degrees outside.

I passed the Salvation Army, figuring Preble Street might be offering a meal around this time. There were a bunch of men in line outside and I slowed to inspect them. No dogs in yellow vests. I knew I could have given the groceries to any one of these men, but from the moment I placed them in my cart, they belonged to you. I could not give your things away.

I went up to Cumberland, turned left, and headed back to Franklin and Marginal Way again. No sign of you. I plunged into Bayside’s orchard of side streets: Chestnut, Elm, Cedar. I circled the shuttered warehouses with barred windows and empty lots, the paving stones and broken pavement shaking your groceries on the passenger’s seat. Where did you go? Did you have someplace to get a meal? Were you in the scrap yard on Kennebec, giving the dog some room to run? Would the wreck of a car be your shelter till morning, a star above your only light?

I was reluctant to give up and felt naïve and defeated as I drove home. I kept your groceries separated, refrigerating the perishables, and decided I’d keep trying to find you. On Christmas Eve, your bags mingled with our bags of gifts as my wife and I drove down to New Hampshire for the holidays. I hoped I’d see you on the corner so the groceries would become a sort of Christmas present. But you weren’t there, and your bags came home with us when we returned two days later.

Over the next few days, I got into a routine of taking the bags with me whenever I left the apartment, looking for you on other corners around town. I have to admit that I started to reconsider the idea of giving your groceries to someone else. At the Franklin/Marginal intersection one day, an older gentleman was holding a sign that read: “Please Help. God Bless.” But I resisted. I didn’t help him.

Another day, I was walking in Monument Square and saw a man who looked frozen solid. His boots were dragging beneath him and his arms were like planks at his side. He asked me something, but his speech was slurred and I could only make out one word: “sorry.” Sorry for what? I knew he’d probably asked me for money or some help, but I continued on my way to a coffee shop, where I spent almost five bucks on a cappuccino. While waiting for it to be hand-crafted, I stood by the front window, watching the struggle of this man’s daily life. When I left, I gave him all the change in my pocket, which wasn’t much.

On December 27th, I drank your eggnog. There was nothing to be done — it had reached its expiration date. The bananas had spoiled by this time, too, and I had to toss them. A few days later, Christmas trees were slumped on snow banks awaiting the trash truck, and I drank your orange juice.

On January 6th, it was 16 degrees out and I was idling again at that same intersection. The driver of the car in front of me exhibited more guts than I have. He completely ignored the green arrow and chatted with a man whose sign read, in part, “Not a vet or homeless, just a daddy who…” Nothing was passed from the car to the man; it was just a conversation. I didn’t mind waiting. I had what was left of your groceries with me and might have been inspired by this scene to finally give them away. But what could my snacks and drinks do to help a man trying to provide for his children? The chocolate Santa would have seemed like a cruel joke.

I knew I had to stop this. The next day, I left the dog treats in the fridge, tossed the card on my desk, and packed what remained into a single bag. At Franklin and Marginal, a man was holding a sign that simply read “HOMELESS.” I was in the center lane this time, but I waved him over anyway. “Hey,” I said. “How’s it going?” I passed him the bag. “It’s some energy bars and stuff.”

“Cool, man!” he said. “Peace.” His voice was muffled by a knit facemask and I could see myself in the mirrored lenses of his glasses. I wished him luck and rolled up the window. When the light changed, he waved to me as I passed. I smiled, but felt stupid and small. A week or so later, I gave the dog treats to my sister, fumbling through an explanation of why I had them. And that was that. Your groceries were gone.

I’m sorry about that. And I’m sorry for not talking to you when I had the chance, not giving you a few bucks for bus fare or beer. I regret not asking you the name of your dog and regret shying away from what should be so simple.

The men and women I see in the lobby of the public library. The ones sheltering from the rain in the doorway of the old Public Market or the art-supply store. The wheelchair-bound man I saw in Minneapolis who had dropped his phone. The blind man in Boston who asked me for directions, but really needed a guide. Powerless as I am, I’d had the power to help them all. But I didn’t.

I think of all those cardboard signs, a downward trajectory summed up in a sentence or two scrawled in black marker. And the one-word pleas, in block letters: “BROKE,” “HELP,” “BLESS.” And the word on my own cardboard sign, hidden inside my ribcage: “EMPTY.” That message isn’t working for me anymore. I’ve got to flip it over and try something new on the other side.

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