Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"I'm a homeless child in need"

     Yesterday's Letters to Santa column mentioned my attempt to play Santa to a needy child in 2011. I went back and looked at that column to check which distant street I traveled to—West 123rd—and discovered that it was actually two columns, and it struck me that maybe you guys might enjoy seeing them. Coincidentally, both Monday's column and the pair in 2011 began with a quote from my wife.

     "Feel my hair," my wife said. I did what I was instructed, taking a handful of reddish golden locks.
     "Soft," I ventured, hoping it was the right response.
     "It's that oil!" she said. That what? Oh right, the oil — "L'or D'Afrique — 100% Organic Argan Oil," the pride of Morocco; a sample had been delivered to me months ago by Tarik Khribech over at the Billy Goat Tavern. I sure wasn't sure what to do with the stuff, so I left the sample for my wife.
     "Do ladies really oil their hair?" I said.
     "You know how women brush their long hair 100 times?" she said. "It's done to get the oil from their scalps to the ends."
     Who knew? I'd read about brushing but never knew why they did it. See, that's how we stay married — I make her laugh, she claims, and she always surprises me.

     Another example of her catching me off-guard. A kindhearted editor passed me a homeless child's letter to Santa. Might I, she asked, help this poor girl? Sure, in an ideal world. I foot-dragged for days. The editor prodded me — what about that little girl? I finally read it, each letter printed in a different color, underlined in yellow, decorated with colorful hearts.
     "I'm a homeless child in need," it began. "My situation is bad and I know it's bad because my mom doesn't talk about it, that means she's trying to protect me."
     Touching. But it's a bad world, and we're all busy. The last thing I wanted to do was play Santa to some child I'd never met. I have my own children to worry about.
     Besides, she wanted a lot: "LPS" — whatever that was — "A Secret Password Journal, Monster High dolls, and Bratz."
     Google told me LPS is "Little Pet Shop," an ultra cute animal play set. But it was the journal that pierced my indifference — as if being homeless weren't bad enough, homeless and a budding writer, too. The poor waif. We writers must stick together.
     My wife announced she was going to Target. They sell toys at Target. "I'll go with you," I replied, worried that, being frugal, she'd balk at my buying gifts for unknown girls. I told her about my mission.
     "Only $20 or $30," I promised, since "$10 is too little and $40 is too much."
     At Target, we started with Bratz. "Platinum Shimmerz Yasmin" with purple hair and extra "Shimmer Powder," a doll that makes Barbie look like an Amish widow. Price: $12.99. Then Monster High. "Cleo De Mummy." Another $10.99. Our limit reached, I was ready to head for the registers. But my wife was off talking to a clerk. Did they have Password Journals? ("Of course not!" I answered, to myself, hopefully) Sure, next aisle over. The journal cost $23.89. Obviously a deal-breaker. As I went to put the box back and make our escape, my wife took it from my hands and added it to our cart.
     "Don't be cheap," she said, a cast coming over her eyes, a fierce determination I knew better than to question. We pushed on to the Little Pet Shop section to discuss which "Shimmer and Shine Pet" was the cutest.
     "A girl wants four toys, you get her four toys," she said, returning to Monster High to swap the basic Cleo I had selected for a more complex and expensive — $18.89 — doll classroom set. By then this girl might as well have been our own daughter.
     "How's she going to carry all this stuff around if she doesn't have a home?" my wife fretted, sadly, and I realized I'd be lucky to be out only 60 bucks and not end up with my wife inviting this gal's family to move into our guest room.
     See, that's the drawback of caring. Once you start, who knows what'll happen? Not that I'm complaining — it was worth it to see my wife click into this unimagined cost-be-damned, mama-bear-feeds-the-cub mode. Even I felt odd, unfamiliar stirrings of altruism. And heck, maybe it'll make this little homeless girl happy.
     Anyway, if you still want to help, despite all your valid reasons not to, you may request a child's letter — and they still have 500 to place by Friday — at www.suntimes.com/santa, or e-mail elves@suntimes.com or call (773) 890-7373.
     Or donate money by going to suntimes.com/santa or by sending a check or money order made out to Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust to: Sun-Times Season of Sharing, P.O. Box 3596, Chicago, IL 60654. But don't say I didn't warn you. Caring is addictive.
                        —Originally published Dec. 14, 2011

     Some days, it all makes sense.
     I was standing at the kitchen counter early one morning last week when my older boy knocked over his lunch bag. It fell to the floor and the can of Diet Dr Pepper he had snuck inside cracked open in such a way that it sent a sheet of soda pop spraying four feet into the air between us.
     I was regarding this phenomenon, not with distress, but a certain bovine curiosity, musing that you couldn't re-create that curtain of mist if you dropped 100 cans, when my younger son's voice shouted from the next room. "There's a dead mouse!" he cried.
     "You get the soda, I'll get the mouse," I said, grabbing a paper towel, choking back my snarky comment ("You wear size 12 shoes; take care of the mouse yourself.") I did the dirty work, returned to the kitchen, and thought, sincerely, "I'll miss this."
     Half an hour later, I strode out of the house, toward the train station, got half a block, remembered, "Oh, the gifts!"—the shopping bag of neatly wrapped presents, the purchase of which, for a Season of Sharing letter, was outlined in a recent column.
     I pirouetted, raced back, grabbed the bag—"Can't talk!"—and bolted for the train.
     At the office, I asked the editor who gave me the letter where I should deliver the gifts. I thought she'd say a certain room on the 10th floor executive offices. Instead, she gave me an address on West 123rd Street. I didn't know there was a West 123rd Street in Chicago. But there is, in West Pullman.
     "The donors are responsible for hand-delivering the gifts," she said.
     Now you tell me.
     I assessed my options. I could go down to the street and try to press the gifts on random passing girls— "Here honey, take a present." But considering our world today, that might not go well. It seems fraught.
     I asked a hotshot colleague who lives in Pullman. Could you . . . ? "Busy!" Clarity descended on me, and I had what I call a "Nineveh Moment." If you recall your Bible, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh but, also being a busy, can't-be-bothered kind of guy, Jonah tries to shuck the task, a storm comes up, buffeting the ship he is trying to escape on, and Jonah gets tossed into the sea.
     That happens. Shirking certain missions only backfires and you end up in a big fish. I told my editor that I'd take care of it.
     My intention was to drop the gifts off the next morning then flee downtown. Between the round trip the day before and today, I had already schlepped the gifts 100 miles. The lady at the shelter had a different idea.
     "I want her to meet you," said Marshe Owens, a case manager at the shelter, located in an old convent house, the floors and woodwork worn, the ceiling patched in places, the space tight —60 people living in 13 small rooms. But clean and homey.
     I sputtered, trying to back off: aren't donors supposed to be anonymous? But that was brushed aside. First I met the mother, a bright-eyed lady to whom fate has handed some bad breaks. I had jokingly supposed her daughter wanted to be a writer, based on her asking Santa for a journal. But more than a glib line, that turned out to be true. The girl has the optimism that gets writers through the disappointments of our profession, ascribing significance to trivial matters such as meeting a newspaper columnist.
     "She said, 'I'm on my way, Mom! This is a big break!' " her mother told me. I've been having that thought daily for the past 30 years. So the girl, 12, was sent for.
     There we should draw the veil. Suffice it to say that I found myself driving north up South Halsted, really, really, really glad that I had, with prodding, paused from dancing around the bonfire of my own ego to think of someone else for once. I felt nestled in a rare bubble of happiness and tranquility. A very—dare I say it?—Christmassy feeling, followed by a realization: Don't wait until next Christmas to do this kind of thing again.
                                                  —Originally published Dec. 23, 2011


  1. "A Certain Bovine Curiosity" would make an excellent title for your next book

    1. A bovine was in the title of Neil's first book, "If at All Possible, Involve a Cow" (the book of college pranks) :)


  2. I like the "Nineveh Moment" And the moral: "Shirking certain missions ends up backfiring and you end up in a big fish." Worthy of Thurber.

    Although I expect someone will now point out that whales are not fish.

    Tom Evans

  3. We seem to have lost a number of commenters who haven't signed on with the new format. It's easy to do, so hope those reading this (Jakash?)will simply create an account/blog with WordPress, LiveJournal or TypePad. It's easy to do, takes only a minute or two. Just choose a user name of your choice, a password, do the captcha and you're in. If I can do it, anyone can.


    1. Or create a Gmail address for EGD and login on blogger.com. The jackbooted thugs haven't shown up at my house yet.


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