Christmas Story

By Richard Cormack
Tuesday December 23, 2008 - 10:35:00 AM

There is a homeless man whose daily station is a bench in front of an espresso shop near the UC Berkeley campus. He’s a gray shell of a man now, crippled and aged, but his life once mattered. In his younger years he sat in a comfortable office and made decisions that affected people.  

His colleagues respected him for his knowledge and skill, and he had dignity, although he never thought about that concept much in his life before. It was when dignity was gone that it became a word for him to ponder. He once had a wife and two beautiful children, a house in a nice neighborhood in a town far away and so many years removed. He had a present full of happiness and a promising future. His family looked up to him, depended on him, and loved him for the good husband and father that he was.  

One day it was all gone, as if a pleasant dream had faded away upon a rude awakening—the family, the house, the job; even the good health he had once enjoyed. A drunk driver ran a light one winter’s evening while he and his family were returning from his little girl’s school concert. His daughter and his wife, the love of his life, were killed instantly in the violent crash. The other child, a little boy of three, hung on for several weeks but eventually he too passed away. The man was seriously hurt but he lived on, although, if he could have, he would have willed himself dead thereafter.  

His joyless life got only worse when he was unable to work any longer in a job that demanded people skills. Partial paralysis turned his comfortable stride into a stiff shuffle that was uncomfortable to watch. His broken nerves connected with only half his face, the other half bearing a permanent grimace that was startling to some. He could see it in their eyes now; he was a hideous sight to behold. He withdrew from friends and in time from society in general. For years he was able to live a modest, if secretive, existence in another town. Many sleepless nights he lay on a bed in his tiny apartment and watched reruns on a tiny black-and-white TV to fill his time and deaden his mind against painful thoughts. But eventually his savings were exhausted. He tried sleeping in local men’s shelters, but none allowed an indefinite stay. More and more frequently he slept outdoors at night, usually in parks or storefront doorways. He hated the idea of begging, but with virtually no income he eventually found himself squatting on a sidewalk, leaning against a storefront and timidly holding out a cup. He hid his face. The small change added up over time. Occasionally he would look down and see a dollar bill, or even larger once in a great while.  

The man used the money mostly to buy cheap wine. He knew he could eat at local shelters, even when there was no room for him to sleep the night. But the people there were damaged in so many different ways, and mostly they were unpleasant to be around.  

For a very few dollars he could buy a bottle of wine and numb his mind, so sleeping on a sidewalk didn’t seem so bad. Eventually he settled on a spot in the daytime that seemed to fill his cup more than others. There was a great hustle and bustle in the workday morning when successful people were headed to work and stopped for their daily caffeine to jolt them awake.  

This was usually when he did best, although most people ignored him on their way to buy their lattes and cappuccinos. A few passers-by might acknowledge him with a “how’s it going,” or, “sorry, no change,” and that sort of thing. More rarely he might gather rude comments.  

One man in particular would let him know that by his presence he was ruining the day for others. This man’s disapproval made him feel bad, but he had no choice but to grow calloused against it. Where else could he go? It was Christmas Eve morning, and the homeless man took his usual place early. His thin jacket was not nearly as warm as his sleeping bag had been on this frigid morning. Arising early was worth it for him today though.  

He expected to profit from the Christmas spirit, perhaps earning extra change on this one day when even tight-fisted patrons of the café tended to show charity toward those less fortunate. He arrived before the doors opened and sat shivering, thinking of Christmases long ago.  

“Look at the poor man, Daddy.” The sound of the small boy’s voice caused him to look up from his usual downward stare. There before him was the very image of the son he had once loved dearly in a life long ago. The tow-haired child wore a heavy wool jacket and a small fleece-lined aviator’s cap. He held his father’s hand. The father looked familiar and yet different. He realized it was the man who often spoke unkindly to him, but this morning he had a softer demeanor as he looked down at his son. “C’mon hon. I’ll buy you a hot chocolate,” he said.  

“Merry Christmas,” the child said to the man, resisting his father’s tug. With great effort, through cracked lips that rarely spoke, the man rasped, “Merry Christmas to you, sweetheart.” The little boy beamed back at him. The father, looking thoughtful now, removed a 20-dollar bill from his wallet and placed it in the man’s cup. “Merry Christmas to you, sir,” he said, before walking away with his child.  

The man felt a teardrop cross his cheek. He marveled at his ability to weep after all these years. He removed a careworn photograph from his breast pocket and smiled as he looked at the image. Merry Christmas, my sweethearts,” he whispered to himself.