The Real Side
The good news: It’s contagious
The young man emerged from the bushes behind the Diamond Shamrock station on Central Avenue. He shivered violently. The temperature hadn’t climbed out of the low teens, and he had spent the night outside.
His pant legs were short, like a woman’s pedal pushers. He had no socks. A thin nylon windbreaker didn’t reach his bare wrists. He seemed to be wearing someone else’s clothes.
A small team of women distributed sandwiches, hot coffee and clothing from the back of a white van. The young man approached cautiously, but soon was pulling on sweat pants and socks, then a knit cap, gloves and a thick sweater.
Another man giggled as he ate a sandwich and sipped coffee. His jacket was damp with black oil, as though he had slept on the floor of a garage. I saw him get into a clean hooded coat. He left with a new sleeping bag under his arm.
I watched this show as I pumped gas. Then I drove off. I had Christmas shopping to do.
Later I came across a group of middle-aged women behind a folding table. A cardboard sign identified them as “Blue Star Mothers,” women with children serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were collecting things to send overseas. They suggested green chile, a small reminder of New Mexico. I wanted to say the only gifts we should give their sons and daughters were return airplane tickets. But I kept the thought to myself as I plowed through my shopping list.
The next morning I saw another group of women behind another folding table. Their cardboard sign announced “Project Angel Tree.” They worked to provide presents to children with parents behind bars. They’re going to need an awful lot of help, I thought as I got on with my shopping.
That afternoon I was dragged to a concert. Three-dozen men in nifty red sweaters sang carols and seasonal standards. They called themselves the New Mexichords. They were joined by the Sandia High School Continentals, talented kids who could dance as well as sing. It was a lot better than I had expected. And the emcee announced the performance had raised a thousand dollars for the Roadrunner Foodbank.
For the record, that closing number—“Peace, Peace”—did not get to me. Sand, maybe dust in my eye. That’s all.
As soon as I got free, I went for beer and peanuts. There’s way too much football on the tube this time of year not to be fully provisioned. I stood in the checkout line behind a woman loading up on pie tins, fruit filling, flour and baking paraphernalia. For 20 years, she told the checker, she’d been surprising shut-ins with a fresh-baked pie so they wouldn’t feel completely alone at Christmas.
The checker said she knew a Polish man “back East” who gave homemade kielbasa to the elderly in his neighborhood. The woman behind me weighed in that she and her dog were getting certified to visit patients in the hospital. The next checker over said her niece had just returned from helping sick people in Louisiana still living in ratty FEMA trailers.
I paid for my beer and nuts and headed home in time for kick-off.
As I turned down the street to my house, I saw this old guy standing in his yard watering his sidewalk. Ten percent of what was coming out of the hose hit the grass. The rest flowed across concrete and froze in the gutter. He was always wasting water like that, and it always bugged me.
He stood in front of his house every day. A woman once lived there, but I haven’t seen her in years. I used to stop to share a quick word with him when I went out running. Lately, I just keep running.
At home, I turned on the game. I cracked a beer and looked for something to hold peanut shells. Instead, I found a canister of Quaker Oatmeal. A recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies stared me in the face. Baking intimidates me. You have to measure stuff, and I cannot comprehend how a mound of mush can go into an oven and come out cake or strudel.
The television announcers began reading the lineups. I sucked at my beer and stared back at that cookie recipe.
Two hours later, I was walking down the block. Spilled flour smudged my jeans. I think that was egg yolk on my shoe. But I was holding a plate of warm, ugly cookies and heading for that old guy’s house.
I don’t know what the heck got into me. Something must be going around.
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