You are here
Home > News > From the Archives: A Christmas Story (2000)

From the Archives: A Christmas Story (2000)

Last year, at Eugene’s Christmas finale, my skid-row Santa was me. I had a rubber nose and carried a sack of beer cans. I also borrowed my wife Faye’s blue egg bucket and labeled it: “Homeless.” I’d jangle the cans like a bagful of aluminum sleigh bells while I worked the mainfloor aisle seats: “Hey, come on, buddy. For Chrissakes, put something in the bucket. Don’t you know it’s Christmastime? Hey, that’s better. God Bless You. You’re beautiful.”

I was left with about seventy five dollars. This is not much to cover a crowd at Christmas. Even seventy-five dollars was too much to pay. Once I was done with my red suit and rubber shoes, I headed off to search for a worthy recipient. There were a number of potential candidates sitting in the 7-11 parking lot at Sixth and Blair. I reached in to grab the bucket and held it out of the window.

“All right. Who’s the hardest-luck case in this lot?”

The candidates looked me over and edged away—all but one guy, pony-tailed and slope-shouldered, his chin tucked down in the collar of a canvas camouflage jacket. “I got a streak of hard luck runs all the way back to New Jersey,” he said. “What about it?”

“I’m on a mission from St. Nicholas,” I told him. “And if you are, in fact, the least fortunate of the lot”—in the spirit of the season, I refrained from saying “biggest loser”—”then this could be your lucky night.”

“Right,” he said. “You’re some kind of Holy Roller? Where’s the string? What’s the hustle?”

“No string, no catch, no hustle. I’m giving. You’re getting. Get it?”

He did. He took the money and ran, taking Faye’s egg bucket into the bargain. Last I saw him, he was busy looking for a hole.

Since then, I’ve wondered about him. Is that a small windfall? He rented a room at a bargain price. Take a shower? Get a companion Every time I found myself passing through one of Eugene’s hard-luck harbors, I kept half an eye peeled for the sight of a long tail of black hair draggling down the back of a camouflage jacket. One year ago, last week was the anniversary of my sighting.

Faye, our daughter and I were in town doing Christmas shopping. We then met up with my mom to have dinner. We’d done a couple of hours in the malls, and I was shopped out. I announced that I wanted to make some private purchases, and slipped off into the rainy cold—alone. The spirit was in need of some fortification, so I set out to go to Eighth. But the trusty peppermint wasn’t powerful enough. These streets in your hometown are too empty, too strange and too sad. Corner of Sixth and Olive: empty. The great Dangold Creamery that my dad built up from a little Eugene farmer’s cooperative: bulldozed down. I kept going in the rain and ducked my heads.

The street in my memory was the clearer path anyway: John Warren’s Hardware over there, where you could buy blasting powder across the counter; the Corral Novelty Shop, where you could buy itching powder; the Heilig Theater, with its all-the-way-across-the-street arch, flashing what we all took to be the Norwegian word for “hello,” so big it could be read all the way from the windows of the arriving trains: “Heilig, Heilig, Heilig.” All gone.

The fountain people were trying to call was now disguised in potted and pine shrubs. However, it was not to my satisfaction. The ruins of an old French cathedral were still visible. After the rain stopped, however, I discovered that there was still a black braid running down the back side of the camouflage jacket. This seemed to be right. He was in the old fountain’s basin, bent in a concealing crouch at one of the potted pines.

I stood up and placed my hand on his shoulder. “Whatcha doin’, Hard Luck? Counting another bucket of money?”

Before I could finish, he turned around and clamped my wrist in a painful grip. I saw then that this wasn’t a chinless street rat standing down in the basin after all. It was an American Indian block-jaw sitting in a wheelchair, built like two fireplugs.

“Ouch! Man! Let go! I thought you were somebody else!”

He relaxed the grip but kept the wrist. I told him about last year’s longhair and the matching jacket.

“He listened and studied my eyes. “OK. “OK. It was a leak. Your surprise surprised me. Let’s get out of the rain and see what kind of medicine you’ve got sticking out of your pocket.”

Under some scaffolding, we retired. My choice of pocket medicine was not well received by him. “I’d rather drink something like Southern Comfort if I have to choose a sugar drink,” he said. We watched the rain as we moved the pint around.

As he spit, a folded Army blanket fell from his lap. My poor hometown was as empty as his legs.

He was a part-time fillet man from the Pike Place Market, up in Seattle, on his way to spend Christmas with family on “the rez,” outside of Albuquerque. His bus was laid up for a couple of hours: “I think they’re getting the Greyhound spayed before she gets to California.”

The pint was three-quarters empty when I removed the lid. “I gotta meet the women. Go ahead and keep it.”

“Ah, I guess not,” he said.

“You’re pretty choosy for a thirsty man, aren’t you? What would be your best druthers?”

“To have the money and make my own choice.”

My wallet was in my hand. “I think I got a couple of bucks.”

“And a quarter? A pint of Ten High would be possible if I had two dollars and a half. With four and change I’d go on to a fair-to-middlin’ fifth. Cream of Kentucky.”

I hesitated. Was I being hustled? “OK, Let’s see what we’ve got.” I emptied the wallet and pockets onto his blanket. He added coins to his collection and counted them.

“Nine seventy-five. If I come up with another two dollars, I can get a bottle of Bushmill’s Irish. Think I can panhandle two dollars between here and the liquor store?”

“Without a doubt,” I assured him. “With both panhandles tied behind your back.”

Then, we said our farewells and set off on our respective paths. We strolled and rolled in the rain as we walked. When I got back to the restaurant, my mom wanted to know why I had a funny grin.

“I was just thinking, if beggars can’t be choosers, then it must follow that choosers, by definition, are not beggars.”

This year for the Christmas show, Santa’s got himself a classier outfit and wrangled some holiday helpers out of the high-school choir. God bless ’em. And we’re gonna work all the aisles. You helpers, get out there! Go down and get dirty! You guys will start to give your money away here. Chrissakes isn’t going to let you nickel and dime. It’s Christmastime.

Ken Kesey is one of the Merry Pranksters and the author One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestAnd Sometimes a great idea is a good thing.

Chronic News MagazineDecember 2000

You can read the entire issue by clicking here.