For Jack Varnell, the best Christmas ever consisted of him roaming the streets of Atlanta, knocking on cardboard houses, and handing out peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
I have to decide every year whether I hate or don’t hate the Holidays.
I have good memories and bad memories from my holiday life, but when weighed against the crass commercialism that has grown into fights over Tyler Perry DVDs in Wal-Mart, it isn’t that hard to decide. But the good ones were good, and I don’t mean the typical Santa came down the chimney last night type. When I think of Christmas in particular, I am reminded of the most impactful one I have known. It came when I was an adult. It had nothing to do with credit cards, a Norelco razor in the snow, or Polar Cola Bears.
In 1993 I was director of an alcohol and drug recovery residence for homeless and indigent clients. They were referred primarily from the State of Georgia Department of Human Resources and Department of Corrections. It was the second closest I’ve ever come to playing Dad. It was the closest most of the “kids” ever had to a true family. The residents lived and received therapy and treatment there, 12-step meetings were held five out of seven nights a week, and each had the responsibility of taking care of the “home.” They also were responsible for their own expenses, with no insurance, and no Mommy or Daddy to pay their way for treatment and housing. It was a part of learning the skills necessary to live in the real and sober world. This meant most of them left the facility each day to work and earn their own cash to meet those responsibilities. Their only other requirement was that they be home to eat dinner as a family each and every weeknight. Period. No exceptions. It was a beautiful thing.
That November, we began looking for ways we as a “family” could give back. It was a cornerstone of the program to understand that demonstrating gratitude, not just speaking it, was an indispensible part of their journey (and mine). I knew that collectively, a group of addicts (in recovery) could pretty well talk our way into donations from nearly anyone we came into contact with. So we began. We solicited coats, hats, and gloves from the local department store. We solicited promises of food from the grocer and bakery in town. A local manufacturer made socks and provided us with about 500 pairs of seconds. I never did figure out what was wrong with them.
A local dentist offered around 150 toothbrushes, and the local Days Inn gave us tons of soap and small tubes of toothpaste.
There were bigger lessons for us all on the horizon. None of us could afford to do what we saw so many do during those days in November. Most we spoke to just wanted to stroke a check, put a gold star on their personal scorecard, and be done with it. And, oh yeah, can we provide a receipt for tax purposes? Street junkies make people nervous when asking for donations, especially with me, a sort of leader of a merry band of thieves who was praised for his idea to help those who would normally fall through the cracks until they found out the facility would be in their neighborhood. I had always been of the belief that charity means love, and that takes time, effort, and compassion, not a check, so getting your hands in it and delivering that love face to face was very important.
As the big day approached, we rounded up all the promised items, packaged them, each present wrapped with a blanket, coat, socks, gloves, hat, toiletries, handmade Christmas cards from the children of the residents, and much more. We took the cash donations that were left over and divided it equally among the packages and included about six bucks in each.
For two days prior we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and put them in bags with chips, fruit, and a Pepperidge Farm sweet treat from the outlet up the street.
I am now finally, after all these years, able to eat peanut butter and jelly again.
T-Bone Washington was what I always called a Brooklyn, NY street cat. He was a very skinny six-foot-three, due to copious amounts of crack cocaine and too little food. He knew the ins and outs of hustling to survive better than most I have ever known. And I had known a few.
I made fun of him because in his thick Brooklyn accent he always said, “in New Yawk, we did this, in New Yawk, we did that.” And I always quipped back, inquiring how he, a black man from Brooklyn, ended up with a redneck name like T-Bone, homeless in Atlanta. On good days he would laugh and poke back, but it was very against his nature. He lived to be the rule breaker. He challenged me and the rules at every turn. He truly was like a feral cat, wanting to love and be loved, craving a home and chance at something better. But, some days it was just too hard to get out of his perpetual survival mode. Life was a three card monty and he had to keep the cards moving. When people got close, he ran or fought. It was all he knew.
Foundation House, the residence, owned two Chevy Suburbans. “Red” was a 1982, four-wheel drive workhorse, and “Blue” was a two-wheel drive executive hot rod with racing stripes like lightning and Cragar mag wheels. Both had capacity for as many as seven people and room for storage. On that Christmas Eve, we filled the cargo areas with presents, bag lunches, and as many residents as we could carry. Several additional vehicles would carry the others, and as everyone settled in the cars, I went back inside for the big surprise. When I emerged with my pillow belly, dressed as Old Saint Nick, I thought that loving group of addicts would lose it. I was blessed to Ho Ho Ho all the way down the road into the big city in search of the homeless.
Purposely, we had waited until long after dark, when the temperatures had dropped, and the shelters had closed for our adventure. Guided by T-Bone, who knew the cuts, hovels, and homeless camps better than most of us, we began our tour of the city. You have to picture twenty-plus bundled up junkies, screeching up to the curb, throwing the sleigh doors of two SUV’s open and unloading presents and brown bags from inside singing Christmas carols at the top of their lungs with Santa. We went into the darkest and sometimes most dangerous places where people lived in exile by choice, necessity, or simply because their illnesses led them there. It was suggested we were crazy or running the risk of being robbed. Both were true, but the reward of knocking on the door of a home made out of a refrigerator box, and the surprise and gratitude that we were just that crazy made it all worthwhile.
We knocked and people opened their doors. Sleepy eyes, and their shock of seeing Santa on the street on Christmas Eve was beautiful. We interrupted sleep and dreams, some people’s drinking, and even disturbed a married couple from Cleveland who had come to Atlanta for something better. You would never believe the value of a tooth brush, or discarded hotel soap unless you have lived without it. The satiation in a PBJ is immeasurable sometimes. The smile of a little girl who didn’t believe in much of anything until Santa knocked on the refrigerator box she and her mother called home to get a new coat that was too big, and a teddy bear to help her feel safe was my gift that year. We were a Salvation Army of T-Bones talking about the possibility of something different in a language these beautiful people could hear, and I have no doubt some seeds were planted for change that night. While I could talk about it for hours, I could never accurately describe it to it’s fullest.
Mean-ass Brooklyn T-Bone cried. More than once. He was a beacon, and an evangelist of hope. It changed his life, and last I heard, he lived comfortably midway between New York and Atlanta, in Virginia Beach, with two beautiful little girls, a loving wife and working as a contractor on the Naval Base. Many lives were changed that night.
That is the meaning of Christmas, and of charity. The gift is supposed to be in the giving, so if given the chance, receive your gift. I’d wish you all the gift of seeing the miracles I saw off Peachtree Street that night. And I’d remind you that Christmas comes all year.
Merry Christmas, T-Bone. I think of you often and fondly.