It was a cold crisp night with a full moon. We arrived late… the turkeys were not cooked until 5:30 PM and by the time we had carved them and put them in the pre-heated insulated food server and driven downtown… it was 7:00 PM. A group of cheerful young people, some wearing Santa hats, was gathered in Civic Center Park on Center Street.
They shouted out “Merry Christmas!” to us as we pulled up in our borrowed station wagon in front of the Veteran’s Building.
While Barbara boomed out her usual invitation, “If you’re hungry we have hot food! Step on up.” As each customer came up to the car Barbara handed him or her a Christmas goody bag – a new pair of thick socks and a small plastic bag with clementines, homemade chocolate chip cookies, homemade chocolate bark, and a couple of Hershey Kisses all tied together with a ribbon.
It was hard to tell if they were more excited by the socks or the candy bag but they were pleasantly surprised by this unexpected largesse. Just as were getting ready to close up shop and drive on, a very cold and bedraggled man arrived on a bicycle under a grey poncho. He was very excited to receive our dinner. Watching him with a practiced eye Barbara asked him, “When did you last eat?”
He looked up from the clamshell from which he was industriously gobbling up food, as if afraid someone might take it from him, and replied, “Not sure. Can’t remember.”
Barbara instructed me to give him seconds since he clearly needed them.
We finally left the Veteran’s Building after feeding a few more stragglers and attending to their needs for supplies. Tonight everyone needed pants — pants that we do not have. Barbara told them that she would try to get some for next Sunday.
We continued on our route… down Shattuck Avenue heading south. After giving dinner and a goody bag to one of our regulars near the Downtown Berkeley BART station I noticed a man with a wheely bag and his young son watching us from the sidewalk with interest. He came up to me and asked could he also have some food and I answered with our standard line,
“As long as you don’t have a house key… yes you can have some. This food is made for the homeless that are living on the streets.”
He looked longingly at the containers in the back of our car and said, “My young son is visiting me from Sacramento for Christmas and we have nothing to eat.”
As I served them each a meal and a goody bag he told me that his elementary school-aged son was an honor student and had received many awards. He was a very proud father. Barbara asked the boy what school he went to and he proudly displayed the many badges on his jacket. He was very polite and respectful. The father packed their dinners in their small suitcase and the look of relief on his face was palpable.
“God bless you! Now my son and I will have something to eat tonight”.
And he gave us both a big bear hug. They took off waving goodbye… clearly we had two happy customers.
I received many hugs and “God bless you’s!” that night. The look on the faces of the homeless men and women when we handed them a goody bag with socks, first showed surprise, then incredulity and then a big smile would light up their faces and more often than not we heard, “Thank you! God bless you!”
On a side street off Shattuck Avenue we found a couple huddled under a comforter next to a stroller. When I called out, “Excuse me Sir, Madam, would you like a hot Turkey Dinner?”
The comforter was pushed back and a beautiful young woman sat up and smiled sweetly at me and said, “Yes please!”
She had the face of a black Madonna, high cheek-boned and fine featured. As I served her and brought a second meal for her husband, I couldn’t help asking about the stroller. I was afraid that there was a child in there.
“Oh no!” she said, “We use that to carry our possessions.”
“There’s a child on the way soon though,” her husband informed me.
I muttered something about hoping that they found shelter soon and as I returned to the car I shuddered at the thought of trying to care for a baby on the streets. What kind of a Christmas story is that?
On our way back down University Avenue… Barbara sent me to serve a young woman sleeping in a doorway whom she informed me was a vegetarian. Having no appropriate food to offer her I selected one of our best goody bags with a pair of super warm dark blue socks.
When I spoke to the pile of bedclothes a curly head slowly emerged and a sweet smile appeared. She could not have been more than 16 or 17. She had a broad brow, clear grey eyes and an almost angelic face — when I handed her the goody bag with an apology for waking her, her eyes lit up and she took the socks and hugged them to her face as if I had handed her a favorite teddy bear. As she thanked me she slid back inside her sleeping bag covering her head once more.
I was gutted. “What is a beautiful young woman like that doing on the streets?”
After a few more stops we delivered the last of our bread and side dish to “H” our Amish friend at the Post Office for distribution to the sizeable encampment of homeless sleeping there.
H shared a joke with us,
“What goes clip-clop, clip-clop. Bang! Bang!?”
Answer, “An Amish drive-by shooting!”
And so ended our Christmas Eve on the streets of downtown Berkeley.
~ Written by Sonia Jacques
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