Thursday, December 09, 2004

Notes From My Knapsack 12-26-04

(Please note that this is posted early, for the Community Booster's Christmas issue! We now return you to regular programming. . .)

Atop our Christmas tree in the living room is a little plastic angel that is my "Zuzu’s petals," my "you’ve had a wonderful life" moment.
She came from the top of a tree in the back room of an abandoned store in a half-empty mall, a tree half-heartedly decorated that was about to be trashed in a pile of frozen turkey boxes, empty tubes of wrapping paper, and the scraps from the largest Angel Tree program I hope ever to be involved in.
1,200 children from some 800 households in a county whose total population was well under 60,000. That’s just how many "applied" to the program through the Salvation Army. Often people would observe that they "knew" there were applicants abusing the system. My response was (and is) "I agree." Based on extensive and up-close experience, I’d allow up to 10% as "users," folks gaming the system to get stuff. 120 out of 1,200 seems like a modest price to pay . . .
. . . even more so, when I factor in what I saw when delivering some of the gift bundles to isolated ridgetop and holler-dweller homes where transportation plans had gone awry. Personally, I’m sure there were more like 2,000 homes and some 3,000 kids who could have qualified. If the families chose not to use assistance for Christmas, that can be an honorable choice, but those numbers left me impatient with those who were unsupportive because of the so-called "undeserving."
Overall community support in our West Virginia county was strong, from individuals, churches, civic groups & businesses. But for all that, we also walked parents (or grandparents, or guardians) through a room where they could get one more toy per child. There was little complaining and many "Thank yous" in that room, but for those of us who were escorts through the big space with the adopt-a-family bundles, the food pantry with the baskets sized per household, and into the "one more toy" room, we knew all too well the sidelong glance, the hesitating hand.
The choices that were made in that room were ones no person who loves a child should have to make.
As escorts, we had some latitude. If the "adoption" bundle looked awfully light, or was obviously just clothing, we could let families take an extra or two. But we also had to watch each other, because the temptation to be generous meant that there might be nothing left for the last families coming through, and some of us had seen that, too.
Some of us, anyhow. The job of escort had a fairly low return rate from year to year, and many just vanished after a few cycles through the rooms as escorts, even when they were signed up for all day. It was sad work, punctuated by moments of sheer joy, with a steady undertone of hopefulness that you could hear if you listened closely with your heart, hard though it was to hear over the chaos of 800 trips through the Angel Tree set-up in that empty grocery store.
Through it all, in the former meat department, this angel looked down calmly upon us all, from the peak of an afterthought piece of d├ęcor.
She was (and is) about to blow a note on a long golden horn, getting ready to call a halt to all our muddled uncertainty and announce a new day. The first few times I looked at her, I saw her as the anticipation of the end of a long day, then as a herald of the possibility that those two days would go by swiftly.
With the weary hours, she began to promise something more, as she patiently watched the parade of humanity pass by: the end of poverty, the close of hopelessness, the conclusion of sorrow. And I began to hope that her trumpet might point to a beginning, a brighter day to come.
When the last packages were gone, and the remaining half-thawed turkeys carried away, we swept and tidied the space better than we had found it when we moved in the previous week (we might want it again next year, after all). The tree in the toy room had been largely stripped of ornaments, and was revealed as the half-barren store reject it was. But the angel still perched on the top.
"I’ll keep her," I said, plucking her off as the last load went to the mall dumpster. She is on our tree today, still ready to play that note of ending, and beginning.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and occasional preacher around central Ohio; if you have a tale to tell of a new year, write him at disciple@voyager.net.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Notes From My Knapsack 12-12-04

If you were to ask me if this story happened in Hebron or Utica, Granville or Newark, recently or a while ago, I’d be hard pressed to answer with certainty.
But I’m pretty sure it happened, somewhere, sometime.

The boy who came in the store, walking down the aisle past the wrapping paper and blue bulbs, standing in front of the bolts and faucets, barely looked old enough to be out on his own. He was clutching something in his hand.
"Can I help you," said the cashier, with something less than the usual boredom. It was a quiet time for December shopping, and even this teenager felt maternal looking at this nervous child.
"Yes," was the answer, followed in a rush with, "and do you have this stuff for sale?" He held out, stiffly, his hand with a silvery piece of paper in the palm.
She reached out and took the object, which up close was a label off of a bottle of perfume. Even if you couldn’t read the slightly shredded label, the odor off of just the scrap of packaging was enough to tell you what brand we were talking about.
"That’s one we carry, all right. Here, let me grab it for you," she said as the boy’s eyes widened with obvious hope and expectation. She trotted from behind the counter to a nearby aisle, got the box with the bottle of perfume, and came back to the register before the child could even move. With quick motions, she slid the bottle out of the box and held it up in front of him.
"That whatcha want?"
He didn’t even speak, just nodded his head up and down.
"This is nice stuff; your mom will like it. You got enough to buy it?"
Again, wordlessly, the boy reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. Ones, crumpled up, which he flattened out carefully on the counter: one, two, three, four. Looking up into her skeptical face, he reached into another pocket, and pulled out a fat handful of change, which he very gently released onto the stack of dollars. Quarters, some nickels, quite a few pennies.
She paused a long moment, looking at the heaped offering, and then at the child.
"Let me get the manager."
Hollering a name out, a door opened in the side of an enclosure around the staircase in the middle of the store.
"Yep?"
"We’ve got a customer you need to talk to here."
The older fellow stood, carefully, in the slanted doorframe, leaving a creaking chair. He walked up to the front, and surveyed the scene. The cashier explained the situation over the boy’s head to the man, who also looked at the inexpertly twisted bandage around the finger still holding the original label, and the worried look on the child’s face.
"Come back to my office," he said to the boy. There was room only for a desk and the one chair under the steps, where the man seated himself again. The boy stood in the doorway.
"So you want to get a bottle of perfume for your mom?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. But I don’t have enough to buy it?" The boy’s voice was more of a statement that a question, really.
"Well, you might after all, but we have something else to talk about." Looking a bit relieved, the boy replied "OK."
"Here’s what I’m thinking. Someone was looking for their Christmas presents in a closet, up on a shelf, where they weren’t supposed to be." The boy’s eyes widened with a jerk of his whole body. "As they were poking about, a package for someone else, like a mother, fell off the shelf and broke. How’m I doin’?" Bobbing up and down emphatically, the boy’s head looked like it was on a spring.
"So then he tried to clean it all up, and cut his finger on the broken glass, peeling off the label so he could go get another one to replace what he had dropped. Is that where we’re at?"
"Yes, sir."
"OK, then. Was this on a carpeted floor or something like linoleum?"
A young face starting to fill with hope suddenly looked downcast. "Carpet."
"Of course. Well, here’s what we’re going to do." The man heaved himself out of the wooden swivel and expertly bobbed past the angle of the doorframe. He walked around two corners, the boy obediently and gratefully following.
"Here’s some carpet cleaner. Does your dad get home before your mom from work?"
"Yes, sir. About. . .about any minute, I guess."
"That’s just fine. Now let’s go back up front."
He took the spray can, put it in a bag with the box sitting next to the register. Looking at the pile still on the counter, he picked up a dollar bill, a quarter, and a couple nickels, and gave them back to the boy. Crouching down, he handed over the bag after the money was tucked into various pockets.
"Don’t use the spray cleaner ‘til your dad gets home. Tell him what you were doing, just like you told me," glaring briefly at the cashier after she snorted a strangled laugh, "and tell him you bought and paid for a new bottle of perfume and this carpet stuff. You guys ought to be able to get everything cleaned up before Mom gets home, and she’ll think you’ve been cleaning house for Christmas. If he has any questions, tell him to call the number on the bag," he said, pointing, "’cause I’ll be here ‘til ten. OK?"
He stuck out his hand, which the boy gravely shook.
"Thank you, sir. And Merry Christmas."
Like a shot, he vanished through the glass door. The manager slowly stood up straight, and said to the cashier, "Well, give me an employee purchase invoice."
"Geez, you had that kid thinking you saw right into his house and what happened," she said, handing him the carbonless triple form. "He must be thinking you’re one of Santa’s helpers, right from the North Pole."
"And how do you know I’m not?" he answered smiling. "Anyhow, I’m old enough to be an elf, and when you have as many grandchildren as I do, Santa’s just part of the job description."
"You were sweet, though. Can I cover half the difference with you?"
"No, but thanks. Get your boy something for me instead, OK? Put it in his stocking. Tell him Santa gave it to him."
"And how do you know he didn’t, right?"
"Right."

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and occasional preacher around central Ohio; if you have a Christmas story to share, e-mail him at disciple@voyager.net.