Almost forty years ago, I came to Philadelphia because I had a friend who offered to put me up on his couch for a few weeks. Times were hard back then and there was no work to be found. I survived off of temp jobs, and by selling my blood and writing essays for a term paper mill. Sometimes I went hungry.
Christmas was kind of a low point for me. I was sleeping in the living room of a trinity house rented by art students, with the understanding that I'd take over the lease of one of them who wanted out, just as soon as I got a real job. I had a bit of work then, demonstrating toys at a department store, but my employer was slow in paying me. The students went home for the holidays, all my friends were out of town, and I had the heat cranked down low, out of respect for my almost-housemates who had to pay for utilities. On Christmas Eve, as a special treat, I had two turkey pot pies instead of my usual one, with a tiny can of cranberry jelly to go with them.
The house was on 15th Street, near South, which at that time was a pretty raffish neighborhood. Next door was the Sahara Hotel, where rooms rented by the hour. Across the street was Sister Minnie's Kitchen, which used to be a soul food restaurant, but by then had been converted to a flophouse.
I had just taken the pot pies out of the oven and was about to sit down to eat when there was a knock on the door. I went to answer it, and there was Leroy. Leroy was one of the winos who flopped across the street, and one of the neighborhood characters. With a big grin, he said "Merry Christmas!" and stuck out his hand.
When I told him I didn't have any money, Leroy started cursing me -- vehement, scabrous stuff. So I closed the door on him and went back to the table.
I sat down and looked at the pot pies. "Merry Christmas," I said to nobody at all.
Marianne thinks that's a terribly sad story. But I don't. I was living on hope back then. I was going to learn how to write, and someday I'd make a living at it. That was all I wanted from life, and I was willing to pay the freight. Poverty, loneliness, and a Christmas spent sans friends sans family sans everything was just part of the price of admission.
Today, I make a living as a writer. I'm married to a woman I love and have a son I'm proud of. I have friends who mean a lot to me and a city that feels like home. I have food and heat and a brand-new cat. Tonight, Sean will come by and I'll tell this year's Christmas story while we sit by the wood stove with a fire going and hot drinks and a big heap of presents by the tree.
Things turned out better for me than I expected. I wish the same for you.
Above: Rather a blurry shot, I'm afraid. You can pretend that it's a misty holiday memory, if you're feeling particularly charitable.