A Christmas story for our times: Homeless in America

Carl had been told by the “authorities” that he had to move, take all his belongings with him, and simply to pack up and go. Photo: A bed on the streets of America

WASHINGTON, November 22, 2013 — His first name was Carl.  That’s all I know. If this is the correct spelling of his name, I’m not aware. I’m only guessing. He was happy, despite being sometimes hungry and cold. Carl called this frozen stiff sidewalk, which framed the backdrop of a gray empty building, home sweet home. There were pluses, like the overhang that shielded him, mostly, from driving rain or whirling snow.

During this holiday season, my husband and I had expected to see him passing by our condo building or perhaps waving from across the street. But weeks have gone by with no sign of him, no eager smile, no warm greeting as he had many times before. We unabashedly miss him.

Pack Up and Leave

We learned through neighborhood folks that Carl had been told by the “authorities” he had to move, take all his belongings with him, and simply to pack up and go. He had had no time to prepare himself.  How does someone in Carl’s position prepare?  

Homeless in America

He had confided to all of us that he hated shelters, felt unsafe there in a crowded “ward” and treasured his independence on the streets. Where is Carl? We urgently wondered as we peered across the street at the empty spot he once securely occupied.

No blankets propped just so, no cart filled with his “goods.” We could no longer say, “I wonder if Carl is home today?” the way we often did.

In a hurry or short of cash, we’d occasionally, slip by him without his noticing.  We had never heard him complain about anything, which certainly served to remind us of our own selfish ways.

We decided in a silent pact between us, we would never avoid him again. Besides, Carl’s greetings were as irresistible as a friend arriving home whom you haven’t seen for a very long time.

We began to embrace him, both literally and figuratively.  Surprisingly easy, despite his dishevelment, lack of cleanliness, much of the time, and his not infrequent precarious mood swings, which were usually brought on by alcohol or by demons within. I know we can never fully appreciate or understand all the reasons that led him to this.

Hungry for Bean Soup

A few years ago on a day when the air, crisp and damp, had become soup weather, Carl greeted us as usual but turned to me and said, “Geri, would you make me some navy bean soup with lots of ham in it?” This was so unusual that it startled me, but only for a second. We had given him a hot meal occasionally without his ever asking. He’d accept, quietly muttering, “I love you.” I felt the trust resonating in his voice and could not deny his request.  Later, he complimented the meal, “Par excellence,” he had said, with the appropriate and correct French pronunciation. It wasn’t the first time he had surprised us. What was Carl’s story?

Now he’s gone. And we miss him. We worry about him. Is he cold, tired, hungry or worse, alone and sad?

Just past dark one evening, my husband burst through the door. “Carl is back!” he said, out of breath now.  “I spotted Carl across the street and I ran as fast as I could after the light changed. We almost knocked each other down when we hugged!

“Of course, I welcomed Carl back to the neighborhood,” my husband Vance said. I stood listening to my husband with pride in my heart and tears yet to surface.  He continued, “Carl isn’t in his old spot, you know.” 

“No?” 

“No, he isn’t. He’s a few doors away, which doesn’t have anything to shield him like the overhang like before.”  

“Why didn’t he go back to his old spot?” 

My husband responded, “He refused to, said it would be ‘wrong.’” How elegant.

A Christmas Gift

What kind of Christmas do the homeless face?

We walked to the front door of our building in order for me to see across the street. There sat Carl huddled, knees up, head down against the cold. Construction would be beginning soon the authorities had said, when they had asked him to leave before.

Nothing significant, to date, had occurred, except of course, Carl moved. Then he was back, but where were all of his belongings he had pack-ratted for so long?

Emotions swelled. Amongst them, frustration, sadness, anger and guilt surface. At least, for now, we knew he would be safe and had come “home” for Christmas. I felt warm inside and pray he feels the same on the outside. He asked so little. I went inside, reluctantly, and close the door.

And then it was Christmas Eve. Vance had returned from another meaningful visit with Carl. My husband had discreetly slipped him some money and things, as they exchanged hands, bid each other well and said goodnight. Inside, Vance doesn’t stop to shed his coat or gloves to warm his hands by the fire.

Instead, he stretched them out to me and with an oddly soft lilt to his voice he whispered, “Here, honey, this is from Carl. He said to give it to you, and to ‘tell Geri Merry Christmas!’”

I dared not speculate on how or where Carl got this lovely little necklace, but it’s one I’ll never forget. Tasteful, charming, but secondary to the real gift he gave me this Christmas.

As if by some gravitational pull, I walked over to the huge picture window that overlooks beautiful trees silhouetted by the delicate hush of night. The soft quiet beauty of the twilight sky beckoned me. As my eyes rested upon an unusually bright star, I heard myself whisper, “Thank you.”

Years have unfolded since that Christmas Eve. Loved ones have passed, hearts have been broken and new found joys have emerged. And construction for the new market has finally begun. We haven’t seen Carl for much too long and now once again Christmas rapidly approaches. If Carl should return, this time I won’t forget to ask him the correct spelling of his name. Perhaps this time, he may even tell me a Christmas story, his story. 


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Geri E. Garnett

The versatile Geri Garnett is a writer, artist, and she was a cabaret singer and dancer, as well as a hands-on teacher’s aide to autistic and hearing impaired children; and served as Supervisor & Events Planner for an international law firm

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