Good morning, Netizens…
Like other Christmas stories I have written over the years, this is an exerpt from what I call a living series I call Tales of the City and, in this case, the story is true. Although it hails from a different time, a different place in my life, and perhaps I have taken some liberties with insouciant Metaphysical Philosophy, it is a story of the Anticipation of Christmas. The Anticipation of Christmas can change people for the better, as you will quickly see.
Old Sarah stirred restlessly, laying in the pile of newspapers behind the shopping mall in Century City. Of all the places that she had found to stay, this was by far one of the best. The warm air being pumped out of the mall by huge fans beneath the street kept her warm on even the chilliest of southern California nights.
Normally nobody bothered her here either, as she was always very careful to arrive long after the crowds of shoppers had gone home, and the few security guards still on duty were inside the mall somewhere guzzling styrafoam cups of hot coffee and minding their own business.
Except, now that it was nearly Christmas, she had to adjust her schedule to compensate for the late shoppers that jammed the mall until closing time. Tonight, for example, she had not been able to tiptoe into her customary place until nearly midnight, and still she couldn't sleep.
Images of her kids, now fully grown and on their own, kept haunting her. It had been nearly five years since her divorce from Ben and she hadn't heard much from either of them since. Of course that was a two-way street, as she would be mortified for either of them to see her now. Ben didn't help much
by saying some of the nasty things he'd said, either.
“That no-good rotten drunken bastard”, she muttered angrily, turning over, making certain to clutch her shopping bag close to her. “Wish his memory'd leave me alone so's I can sleep.”
She had lost her home nearly a year before, about the same time she lost her job at Carlyle's machine shop outside of Bakersfield, and when unemployment finally ran out, she had found herself, at age 54, too old to get another job and too young to retire. Shortly thereafter, she joined the ranks of the
homeless on the streets of Glittertown.
It hadn't been as bad as she had first imagined. Once you learned the ropes, a body could survive with some degree of comfort living on the streets, and it was never boring. Prior to joining the homeless, Old Sarah had never really had the time or energy to just watch people. Why, they were more fascinating than anything she had ever seen. The countless types of people, the voices and the looks on their faces when they thought no one was watching them…why it almost made living on the streets worthwhile.
Now Christmas, there was a matter of a different color.
“People start being extra polite to one another at Christmas, somewhat like peaked frilly white frosting on a cake that tastes bad to begin with.” she had observed earlier in the day to Charlie, one of her few friends. “They simply aren't the same over Christmas, until all the goodness they are supposedly feeling wears off, and then they go back to being their same nasty old selves. What's even worse is the kids these days never learn what Christmas is really about…”
Charlie had thought that was particularly funny, and laughed until he started coughing. Charlie was dying of emphysema, and living off his pension in an old hotel. He had offered, time and again, to let her stay at his room, but she refused, knowing that the room barely had enough space for Charlie and his collection of Zane Grey novels, let alone her.
The morning damp had moved in, and gray was already whispering its way across the eastern sky when Sarah stirred and moved out of her spot, long before the mall employees or early shoppers began arriving.
She had just stopped off at one of her usual morning stops, a MacDonalds that stayed open all night, to buy a cup of coffee and try and filch a copy of the early morning paper.
Frustrated at not finding a paper inside the restaurant, she had gone back outside, under the glare of the Golden Arches, to check a few of the trash containers next to the bus stop for a paper to read, when she saw the guitar laying on top of a pile of greasy rubble in the dumpster behind the restaurant.
Back in the 60's she had played the guitar quite well, and used to sing in the coffeehouses of that time. That had been one of the things that Ben did that ended their marriage, once and for all, was smash up her ivory-inlaid Gibson guitar during one of his drunken rages.
Surreptitiously looking around to see if anyone was watching, she lifted the guitar carefully from amid the mix of food and paper containers in the dumpster and set it carefully aside, next to her coffee. On a whim, she dug a little deeper into the rubble and found a battered, but serviceable hardshell case for the guitar, and before she finally quit digging in the filthy dumpster, had found several books of Christmas music to boot.
“Looks like somebody else is having a tough Christmas,” she muttered to herself, carefully putting the guitar back inside the case where it belonged.
She wandered aimlessly for a few moments, her newly-acquired booty tucked under her arm, until she found the right spot, next to an old, abandoned railway spur, where no one would notice her. Sitting down, she experimentally plucked a few strings, then strummed a few notes. Yes, she could still remember quite a few chords.
An hour or so later, as the sun began climbing in the east, she carefully put the guitar inside the case, and finishing off the last of her coffee, headed purposefully toward where she customarily met Charlie each day. Charlie, as usual, was already there, sitting on the park bench, basking as the early morning sun began warming the little park where they had met, on a daily basis, more or less for the last five months.
“What's you got there, Sarah?” Charlie peered at her over the tops of his bifocals, as she strode up with the guitar case in view.
“I found this guitar in a dumpster behind the MacDonalds. It even has a case and some Christmas music, 'n there's nothing wrong with it. It ain't busted or anything. What's even better, I think I remember how to play it.”
“Well I'll be damned.” Charlie took out his pipe and a rumpled sack of pipe tobacco and began stoking up his pipe. “Let me hear you play a few tunes.”
Sarah shyly opened up the guitar case, next to her on the park bench, and took the guitar out. Like most of her fractured dreams, old memories unfolded in Sarah's mind, as she struggled to tune the guitar. She had been there once, singing in front of uplifted faces in the coffeehouses. She had once been a folk singer, back in the 60's, although in those days her Gibson and her voice were both much better.
This was a good guitar, as guitars go, although not a Gibson, still it had a straight neck, and the strings were not too bad.
The morning waned, and as they returned from their usual noontime trip to the taco vendor, sitting in the park, she played what she had hoped to be her last song for her fingers and her voice were both getting sore. Charlie, who had sat there the whole time, with a beautific smile on his face, tapping his feet to the beat, sighed deeply when she became adamant about quitting.
“Could you sing me a song, please?”
A black child, holding firmly onto the hand of a young woman behind the park bench, was struggling against the woman's insistent efforts to leave this area of the park. He asked the question again, in that same soft voice.
Sarah turned to look at him, and realized that he was blind, for he had a white cane in one hand opposite his attendant. And behind the bushes she could see a small group of children, all with white canes and escorts, getting off of a delapidated old school bus at the curb.
“Why…sure,” she stammered. “I'm really not a very good singer, though.”
“We used to have a teacher that sang to us, but he died, and now we don't have anyone to sing Christmas songs to us anymore.”
The young boy pulled his attendant, somewhat against her will, around to the front of the park bench, whereupon he prompted sat down on the grass, only to be joined by the rest of the children from the School for the Blind.
“Please…” he whispered softly. “Please sing some Christmas music for us.”
Sarah picked up the guitar once more, inwardly chiding herself for the tremor in her hands, while Charlie smiled that same enigmatic smile of his, and leaned back, puffing silently on his pipe.
She sang Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and then when one of the kids asked to hear it, Jingle Bells. Of course, there was a request for Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and then Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. She played nearly every song in the faded songbook, and many of them twice, even three times.
When she finally stopped to catch her breath, and to rest her fingers, she realized, with a sense of shock, that she had lost track of how long she had been playing music for these kids. The sun was going down, yet the children were sitting silently in a circle around the park bench, their sightless
eyes and faces upturned, as if to capture every nuance, every phrase and tone of each song, patiently waiting for more.
Then, as suddenly as they had arrived, someone from the school, a supervisor probably, reappeared with the wheezing schoolbus, to retrieve all the children. One by one, each of them solemnly reached out to touch her face, and thank her for singing to them. When the last child had thanked her by
touching her face, she and Charlie were once again alone, together.
As they trudged back the way they had came, and as the night dressed itself in its finery ready to take to the streets, in a secret corner of the park, an elderly old man dressed in a moth-eaten red suit and faded red pants, a very special old magician with a white beard known to children both sighted and unsighted throughout the world, peered over the tops of the bushes as Sarah and Charlie passed on their way into the twilight. He had delivered an early Christmas present—one battered guitar and its case for Sarah, former bag lady and musician extraordinaire, who would find it, on her way back to the meaning of Christmas.
The city, contrary to what some people think, breathes and has life. Although we hear so much about the bad things in the city, occasionally, and with no help nor assistance from us, goodness just naturally oozes forth from its concrete and steel barriers and just embraces us. The City lives.
Postscript: Although the real-life embodiment of Charlie passed on in 2000, Sarah, despite her advancing years, has gone on to a well-deserved retirement and currently lives in a senior center in Santa Monica, California. However, I have it upon good report that each Christmas she still makes the rounds to assisted-living facilities, foster care facilities and other non-profit agencies where she plays Christmas music.