CHRISTMAS IN CLEVELAND

By Jim Perkins

December eleventh, nineteen hundred

and ninety-one

at St. Augustine’s Holy Catholic

and Apostolic Church,

we stood the line

for hours.

 

We had no presents

for six kids,

and we had heard

that for a few dollars

we could buy Christmas

at a discount.

 

So, we stood

the bone chilling line

as dawn broke,

down the line word spread,

“The door’s open.”

 

Mothers in tight torreadores

dragged dirty children

by tattered sleeves,

into the musty warmth

of the sixty year old school.

 

The lile stretched up

and staggered down

four flights of steps

and out the double doors.

Halfway down the block

we stood waiting

and watching

as an open-coated man,

fueled hot with poverty

and cheap wine,

tried to sell coats & sweaters,

freshly picked

from the parish rummage pile.

Then he sang Happy Birthday

to himself, loudly

off key,

and invited the entire line

to his party that night.

“Plenty of food, good looking men,

free babysitting, cocaine, and a live band,”

The line women turned raucous

as they cat-called comments

and begged for directions

which the man never gave.

 The laughing moment passed

as the faceless man faded

into the line chatter

lowered to a hum,

as waiter spoke to waiter,

swapping lies

and trading information

on food stamps, bread lines,

give-aways, and giving up.

 

A heavyset line guard,

wearing a faded stars & bars

T shirt, ran along the line

barking, “No smoking, no pushing,

no spitting on the stairs.

Bathrooms on the second floor,

single file, single file,

don’t block the door,”

Nine o’clock, A.M., on the dot

the doors of the fourth floor

 gymnasium, opened and accepted

the hopeful throng.

“only ten at a time

for ten minutes.”,

a voice echoed

down the stairs.

 

Up a step, stop. Up three steps, stop.

Step, pause. Step step, landing.

Step, pause. Step step, wait.

The line moved slowly up.

Four hours, twenty minutes

and fifty-two steps later

the battered oak doors

admitted us to the ‘Hobo’s Higbees”.

“Take a garbage bag, step to the right.

Make a choice, quickly now,                              

Move along, move along.”

From one rickety table to the next

spread plastic doll carriages,

wooden cars, used books, purple

striped sweaters (only in size large),

and thin Cannon towels

in blue, green, and brown.

 

We shuffled our Christmas

Into black Hefty bags

and around the room;

Making do . . . making do.

 

 

“Do you have correct change?

Step up, step up.

No Checks, no credit,

no tabs or on-the-cuff.

and pay the man . . .

pay the man. You’re shoppings

done, you’re time is up.

Forty-two dollars & thirty-five cents,

please exit to the left.”

 

With our Christmas

bump-sliding behind us,

we descended the 52 steps.

Bump, slide. Bump bump, slide.

We bottomed out

the door, and walked

the four gray blocks

 to the bus stop.

 

My wife and I stood,

silently removed from each other

and from the half-filled

garbage bags

at our feet.

Yet, still somehow connected

by our feelings

of kinship and cause,

and by the thick crust

of dirty snow

that would cling to our shoes

for many days to come.

 

 

 “Focus on Poverty”

Copyright Homeless Grapevine #