At the finale of the Christmas show last year in Eugene, OR, I came out as a skid-row Santa, complete with rubber nose, plastic sack full of beer cans, and a pint of peppermint schnapps to fortify the holiday spirit. 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. Put something in the bucket, for Chrissakes. Don’t you know it’s Christmastime? Hey, that’s better. God bless you. You’re beautiful.”
I ended up with only about seventy-five bucks. Not much of a take for a full house at a Christmas show. But even seventy-five bucks was a wad too big to pocket. So after I got out of my red suit and rubber snoot I drove off to seek a worthy recipient. I spotted a likely assortment of candidates in the 7-Eleven parking lot, on the corner of Sixth and Blair. I swung in and held the bucket out 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. The last I saw of him, he was scurrying away, looking for a hole.
Since then, I’ve wondered about him. Did that little windfall make a difference? Did he rent a cheap room? Get a bath? 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. Last week, a year later to the day, I made a sighting.
I was in town with Faye and our daughter, getting in some Christmas shopping before we rendezvoused with my mom for supper. 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. I was headed for the liquor store on Eighth, thinking the spirit could use a little fortification. But the trusty peppermint wasn’t powerful enough. These hometown streets are just too strange, too vacant, too sad. Corner of Sixth at Olive: empty. The great Dangold Creamery that my dad built up from a little Eugene farmer’s cooperative: bulldozed down. I ducked my head and kept walking in the rain.
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.
When I reached the city center, I noticed that the thing people had finally given up trying to call a fountain was newly disguised with pine boughs and potted plants. But to no avail. It still looked like the remnants of a bombed-out French cathedral. Then, when the rain eased up, I was surprised to discover that the ruins were not quite deserted: I saw a loose black braid hanging down the back of a camouflage jacket. That seemed right. He was in the old fountain’s basin, bent in a concealing crouch at one of the potted pines.
I came up from behind and clapped my hand on his shoulder. “Whatcha doin’, Hard Luck? Counting another bucket of money?”
He wheeled around and had my wrist clamped in a bone-breaking grasp before I could finish the word. I saw then that this wasn’t a chinless street rat standing down in the basin after all. This was a block-jawed American Indian built like two fireplugs, sitting in a wheelchair.
“Ouch! Man! Let go! I thought you were somebody else!”
He eased the hold, but kept the wrist. I told him about last year’s longhair and the matching jacket.
He listened, studying my eyes. “OK. Sorry about the twist. I was taking a leak. You surprised me. Let’s get out of the rain and see what kind of medicine you’ve got sticking out of your pocket.”
We retired under some scaffolding. He was less than enthusiastic about my choice of pocket medicine. “I’d rather drink something like Southern Comfort if I have to choose a sugar drink,” he said. But we passed the pint back and forth and watched the rain.
He leaned to spit and a folded Army blanket slipped out of his lap. His legs were as gone as the main gut of my poor hometown.
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.”
When the pint was about three-quarters gone, I screwed on the lid and held it out. “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.”
I reached for my wallet. “I think I got a couple of bucks.”
“And a quarter? If I had two bucks and a quarter, I could get a pint of Ten High. 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 a few coins and counted the collection.
“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.”
We shook hands goodbye and headed off in our separate directions, strolling and rolling through the rain. At the restaurant, my mother wanted to know what I was thinking about that gave me such a goofy 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. Come on out here you helpers, come on out. Get down there and panhandle! And you guys in the audience start passing your money to the aisles here. This is no time to nickel-and-dime, for Chrissakes! It’s Christmastime.
Ken Kesey, one of the Merry Pranksters, is the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion.