Daria’s Christmas Eve
By Debbie Allyn Jett
Daria felt her face begin to go numb as she turned the corner into the howling wind. Icy snowflakes blasted her skin as she hurried toward her destination, her old favorite restaurant in the Loop. She had always looked forward to having her lunch there when this was her beat. The food was good, plentiful and reasonably priced, but the camaraderie was her favorite dish. She hadn’t been there for a long time, as arthritis and age had pushed her into desk duty a few years back. She didn’t mind working inside now, as the harshness of winter was a much more difficult challenge than it had been when she was young and strong. She also didn’t miss wearing the uniform, as people were not as nice to cops as they used to be. The change in attitudes had come gradually, but it still upset her when people made rude comments. She knew that some of her fellow officers deserved the snipes that were aimed at them, but she had always strove to be as nice and as helpful as she could be, and had promised herself that when she became jaded and short-tempered, she would retire or find another line of work. Her health problems had taken her off the streets and parked her behind a desk, and retirement was not far off, so she hadn’t had to find a new career. She was grateful for that, as jobs were hard to come by, especially for women her age.
It was already getting dark, although it was only a little after 4:00. The sidewalks were still crowded with commuters hurrying toward their buses and trains with their shopping bags crammed with brightly wrapped gifts. Daria was walking against the crowd, being jostled about as her feet slipped on the slushy sidewalk. She scrutinized the faces as they passed her by. Some had blank expressions, some looked genuinely happy, but most just looked tired, determined to get out of the cold and get home to celebrate the holidays with their families and friends. Daria had never married and lived alone. She usually visited her family in Florida for Christmas, but this year she would be spending the holidays alone in her small apartment. Her parents had retired to the south to escape the frigid Midwestern winters years ago, and most of her siblings had followed, leaving her the only one still living in Chicago. She wasn’t fond of Florida, with its hot humid weather and strange-looking palm trees, but right now, as the Hawk Wind howled and whistled between the buildings, it seemed like it might be a good place to be. She had just been there last month, having spent her meager savings to fly down for her mother’s funeral. Her father had passed away a long time ago and the family gatherings had never been the same. Still, she knew she would be lonely tomorrow and that speaking with her brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews over the phone would not be the same as being there. However, she was trying as hard as she could to keep her spirits up, and thought that perhaps she might see some of the old gang at the restaurant. They were always good for a laugh or two, and she could doggy-bag her leftovers for dinner tomorrow. She had a small game hen in the freezer, and some of the makings for a nice meal, but the mood to prepare it had long since passed. She had never been able to duplicate her mother’s wonderful recipes, and since she would be eating alone, she didn’t feel like messing up the kitchen anyway.
Lost in her thoughts, she had ceased to pay attention to her feet and stepped off the curb into a deep puddle of icy slush, coming down hard on her bad knee. She felt the pain shoot through her thigh and her socks quickly became soaked as the dirty brown water slopped over the tops of her boots. “Damn!” she muttered under her breath as she climbed back onto the sidewalk. She wondered if a drug store might still be open and if she should stop and buy some dry socks, since frostbite was a really possibility, but figured she could make it home in time. Besides, maybe she could pull her boots off in the restaurant and her socks would dry out some. She quickened her pace, and then realized she probably should have called first. Maybe they were already closed or had gone out of business. She finally came to the door and was grateful to see that the place was still there and that the lights were on inside. Colorful lights twinkled around the windows and a small Mrs. Santa Claus figurine inside on the sill held an illuminated candle. She felt the cold metal of the door handle through her glove as she pulled the door open.
The warmth from inside felt good on her frozen face and the tinkle of the tea bell still attached to the door brought back a flood of nostalgic feelings. The wind slammed the door open and she had to pull hard on it to close it. Steam rose from her cold clothing and it took her a moment to catch her breath. Her eyeglasses immediately fogged up, and she wiped the moisture from the lenses, leaving them smeary. To her dismay, a loud voice from behind the cash register said “Sorry, we’re closed!”
“Can I just get a carry-out, then?” Daria asked. She glanced around and saw several bus boys tearing the soiled Christmas paper off the empty tables. “Sorry, sweetie, we’re boxing up the rest of the food for the homeless shelter. I think the McDonald’s is still open if you hurry.”
“Margaret, is that you?”
“Oh, my gosh! Daria, where have you been? It has been ages!” Margaret came out from behind the cash register and gave Daria a huge hug and a kiss on both cheeks.
“Oh, your face is SO cold! Come over here and sit down!” Margaret helped Daria take her coat and scarf off, then steered her toward a red vinyl seat near a hissing radiator. Daria pulled her boots off and placed them upside down on the radiator, hoping the heat would stay on long enough to dry them out. The two old friends assessed each other in silence for a moment, and then began to giggle. Margaret’s face was much more wrinkled than Daria remembered and Margaret seemed to think that Daria used to be much taller.
“So, how are you?” They both laughed loudly as they each asked the same question of the other.
“Older!” Margaret chortled.
“Who isn’t?” Daria answered. “You still look good.”
“I’m doing all right,” Margaret answered. “My feet hurt more than they used to, but what else is new? Are you still with the police?”
“Yes. I’ve been on desk duty for a long time now, looking forward to retiring in a few more years. How come you’re still working?”
“I won’t be for much longer. This place is closing next week. Been in business for sixty two years, but we’re giving it up. Larry wants to move to Arizona, so instead of having my old customers to talk to, I guess I’ll be talking to a bunch of stupid cactuses!”
Daria laughed again, still amused at Margaret’s blunt sense of humor. “You’ll have plenty of other old farts like you to talk to in Arizona, trust me!”
Margaret grasped Daria’s cold hands in hers and rubbed them, restoring a bit of warming blood flow. “So, how come you haven’t moved to Florida?”
“I’m not crazy about Florida, although with the wind chill at minus five today, I think I might just change my opinion!”
“Larry and me have been to Arizona quite a few times. We bought a small condo last year and I like it okay. I’ll miss Chicago but I won’t miss the snow!”
“You can always go up to the mountains if you get homesick for cold toes!”
“Everywhere you go there, you here a Chicago accent. I shouldn’t get too homesick. We’ve already met some of the neighbors and four of them are from here.”
Margaret gazed at Daria for a moment and sighed. “I miss you, though and all those noisy cops who used to mess up this place. Do you still see Lou?”
“No, he had a stroke and died a few years ago. Most of the officers I work with now are young and don’t hang out much with us old goats. I mostly just work and go home, eat and sleep. My life isn’t nearly as exciting as it used to be.”
“I’m glad mine isn’t. I don’t think my nerves could stand it anymore.”
A ruckus in the back at the counter near the kitchen interrupted their conversation. They both walked back to investigate. Daria felt the cold floor through her damp socks, but was grateful that they were beginning to dry. The counter was covered with boxes and shopping bags filled with Styrofoam containers of food. Two homeless people were arguing with the cook and pulling on one of the shopping bags he was trying to fill. Daria recognized the two from the old days and was surprised to see that they were still around. “What’s going on?” she asked.
The cook, impatient with the two, looked at Daria expectantly. “These two are trying to take this food, but it’s supposed to go to the homeless shelter.”
“But we’re homeless! Why can’t we have it!? We don’t want to eat at the shelter, we’re hungry now.”
The cook grew more impatient. “Look, you can’t eat here, we’re closed. Besides, you both stink!”
Daria realized that the smell coming from their tattered clothing was overpowering the aroma from the food, but it was an odor so familiar to her that she hadn’t noticed it until the cook brought it up. She also knew that many of the homeless suffered from conditions they could not control and were not able to care for themselves properly. It wasn’t always their own faults that they smelled bad. She gave the cook a warm smile. “There’s no reason to be rude. Why don’t you just let them take the food? You’re giving it away anyway. What’s the harm? Where’s your Christmas spirit?”
The cook scowled and let go of the bag. Margaret smiled, pleased to see that Daria still had the knack of settling squabbles with ease. One of the bus boys came over and placed some plastic utensils, napkins and several cans of soda into the bag and handed it to the two. “Feliz Navidad,” he said and smiled. Margaret placed two pieces of pumpkin pie wrapped in cellophane into the bag on top of the containers and walked them to the door, locking it behind them. She turned to Daria. “I hate to cut this short, but the truck from the shelter will be here any minute to pick all of this food up, and then we’ve got to get home. The snow is getting deeper and I don’t want to get stuck in it on Lake Shore Drive. I’ll give you my address in Arizona, and Larry is good on the computer, so we have e-mail. We can write to each other!”
She handed Daria one of the bags, adding some pieces of pie and cans of soda. Daria set them down on the counter and fished a business card out of her pocket and handed it to Margaret. “Here’s my address and number. Don’t lose it!” She shook hands with the cook and the bus boy. “Feliz Navidad to you, too!” She and Margaret walked back to the cash register with the food. “What do I owe you?”
“You know your money is no good here. Enjoy the food and have a nice Christmas!”
Margaret gave Daria a tight hug, wiping a tear from her eye. Daria put her boots back on, and wrapped her coat and scarf tightly around herself, eyeing the increasing storm outside. She picked up the bag of food and walked to the door, pushing it open into the screaming wind. “Enjoy Arizona!” she shouted. Margaret pulled the door shut as she watched Daria disappear into the swirling snow. “God bless you,” she said softly and turned the lock. A moment later, the lights blinked off.
The streets were nearly empty as Daria turned toward home. Her thoughts turned to the two homeless people she had encountered in the restaurant and wondered how they had survived all those years. They were both mentally disturbed but somehow had managed to take care of each other. An elevated train clattered overhead, its usual roar muffled by the snow. Daria realized too late that she had strayed directly under the tracks and the snow showered down the back of her neck in spite of her scarf. The wind blew a small clearing in the snowy air, and she spotted the couple ahead of her. She wondered where they were going and decided to follow them. She knew from experience that there were lots of hidden places in the city where the homeless stayed, away from the prying eyes of those who were more fortunate. She had even participated in many raids of homeless encampments, ashamed of having to disperse them and throw away their meager personal possessions. The police department had often made a big show of the raids, with flashing lights and lots of yelling. Blankets, sleeping bags and coats were stuffed into waiting garbage trucks with no regard to the rights of their owners. She had always hated the raids and felt that the city had no right to treat people that way just because they had fallen onto the worst of times. Still, she had had to follow orders. Participation was mandatory.
Daria had to hurry to keep up as the deepening snow made it harder to walk. Her bag of food slapped against her leg with each step and she hoped the handles wouldn’t tear off. Where were they going? Would they turn and confront her? Maybe she shouldn’t keep following them, but her curiosity was getting the better of her.
The two headed down a long metal staircase to an area Daria remembered. It was several levels below the surface streets, and the homeless often camped there, as it wasn’t raided very often. There were huge electrical vaults there, which provided a bit of warmth from the grates in the pavement. She was startled to see how much the encampment had grown. Boxes, crates, tents and other flotsam made up a small village, where human misery huddled beneath blankets and sleeping bags. However, there was a semblance of order to the array, and many of the people had made their beds up neatly, trying to bring a sense of normalcy to sleeping on a sidewalk. The couple she had followed had disappeared and no one else paid her any mind. She felt like she was trespassing.
“Hey, you! Have you got food in that bag? I smell turkey!” Daria turned to where the voice was coming from and spotted an elderly man sitting on his blankets. He was smoothing the wrinkles from the covers and Daria noticed a teddy bear lying on his pillow. “Is that turkey? I sure could use some. Why don’t you come on over and have a seat?” Daria looked at him curiously. “I won’t bite you, I’ll just bite that turkey!” He laughed at his own joke and patted the bedding with his hand. “Come on over and visit an old man.”
Daria walked over and sat down beside the man, feeling the unforgiving concrete beneath her arthritic hips. The man was much older than she was, and she could not imagine how he could sleep on such a hard surface. She thought of her own soft bed in her warm apartment. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Daria. What’s yours?”
“I’m Vincent. Nice to meet you.” He pulled his hand out of a ragged mitten and reached out to shake hers. She pulled off her gloves and shook his ancient hand, feeling the leathery dryness of his cold skin. “Nice to meet you too, Vincent.” She had planned to take the food home with her, but knew that she could not be so selfish.
“How would you like to share Christmas dinner with me, Vincent?” She opened the bag, and began setting the containers out on his bed. He popped one open eagerly, the aroma of turkey and dressing wafting out into the cold air. She opened another, containing potatoes and gravy, green beans and corn bread. There were small dishes of cranberry sauce too. “Dig in!” she said.
“Not until we say Grace first.” Daria could not imagine that this destitute man had much to be grateful for, but he took her hand in his again. “Lord, we thank you for this fine meal! Amen!” Vincent tore open a plastic packet with the knife and fork inside and began eating. Daria did the same and was pleased that the food was still warm. “Daria, you are the answer to my prayers! I just missed the van to the shelter and thought I wasn’t gonna get no Christmas dinner. I can’t walk that far, and I ain’t got enough money for the bus. I was ready to go to sleep hungry and here you came with a bag full of turkey. I am truly blessed!” Vincent continued to enjoy his feast with a big smile on his weathered face. As the two ate together, Daria thought that the food tasted far better than she remembered. Perhaps the cook had gotten better or perhaps it was well-seasoned with the gratitude emanating from this man sitting beside her on a stone-cold sidewalk. They grinned at each other and ate every bite from the containers. Daria peeled the cellophane from the pumpkin pie slices and gave him one. “Sorry, I don’t have any whipped cream.”
Vincent laughed and said “I’m too full for whipped cream!” They finished their pie in silence and Daria leaned back and scrutinized Vincent. “How did you end up down here, Vincent? How did you come to be homeless?”
“ I been on the streets for over 20 years. I don’t mind it, except when it’s cold like this. I lived with my daughter and her husband for a while, but they fight too much. I couldn’t take all that screamin’ and squabblin’ so I just left.”
“What’s with the teddy bear?”
Vincent picked up the bear and squeezed it. “My grandson gave it to me to keep me company. Said I wouldn’t be lonely that way. Some of the other folks down here laugh at me for sleepin’ with a teddy bear, but I don’t care.” He puts the bear back down on his pillow.
“When’s the last time you saw your daughter and your family?”
“It’s been a while, but she’ll probably come down here lookin’ for me tomorrow. She’ll take me to her house for a nice dinner, and give me some gifts and stuff that I need, then they’ll start yellin’ again and I’ll come back here. This ain’t a house but it is my home. This whole city is my home.”
Daria stood up and shook Vincent’s hand again, then gave him a hug. “This whole city is my home too, Vincent, and I’m glad you are in it with me. Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas to you, too, and I thank you kindly for the turkey dinner! Now you should get on home before the snow gets any deeper. Go on now.”
Daria climbed the stairs and turned back to wave to Vincent. He waved back with the teddy bear in his hand. As she climbed the top step back onto street level, the snow once again blasted her face. She made her way to the el and as she waited for the train on the deserted platform, she turned and looked at the snow-covered streets below. She thought about her life and the roads she had taken, and thought about Vincent’s life and how different his roads had been and where they had taken him.
She was grateful that their paths had crossed and she knew that she would visit him again and that she wouldn’t be lonely tomorrow after all. She had shared her food with him and he had shared his home with her. It was her home too. They both belonged to the city and it belonged to them.