One year many Christmases ago, and after my beloved radio industry had gone boringly corporate, I was running a small little arts cafe in the "Big Smoke." I had yet to learn that to make a go of it, "cheap and cheerful" with quality comfort food, craft beer and catering to the financially-sqeezed arts community, one needed volume. Spell that big space, not 26 licensed seats. O.K., we squeezed in 36. But tiny place means you need to be expensive to pay your bills, like an exclusive bistro. We DID pay them, plus the staff received above average wages apart from their (tax-free) tips, but there was no money left over to pay the owner..... me, who worked the longest hours.
Yet I worried about those with no families or partners to be with on Christmas Day; no gifts to exchange, no sumptuous, traditional feasts to share. Yes, there were downtown missions and the Sally Ann for some of their residents and street people. But what about the truly homeless, mistrusting of anything institutional? And those "single again" (or continuously); those going to school, the working poor, too far (or broke) to make it home?
I thought it would simply be a good thing to do, offering a free traditional Christmas turkey dinner with no strings (pardon the pun) to any and all, including those we probably would never see again. I ran the idea past my partner, who was very unhappy about my being away for part of the "big day." I decided to do it anyway; I HAD to do it. My circuitous life meant I knew what it was like to be comfortable, but I also had experienced being broke, having no family close by and at one point, being truly hungry. One never forgets that.
I put a notice up in my little hole-in-the-wall cafe, asking those who could help prepare, serve, and even cook turkeys (we had no ovens). Word got out well beyond our neighbourhood. Someone called me from very upscale Moore Park (known more as the refuge of lawyers plus downtown movers and shakers) where, which prestigious renovation company sign on a front lawn was more important than the neighbour's. The resident (surprisingly) would happily provide cooked turkeys. We were on.
People offered veggies, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce; we would contribute soups, several desserts, juices, milk, tea and coffee. A few cheery souls promised to help serve (not my own family or inlaws, which was fine..... just wasn't their thing). We all have our priorities, especially on an important holiday. One young woman called, offering to bring some food and asked, as a single mom, if she could include her toddler. When she showed up, I realized she was one of our thoughtful regulars, a York University graduate student. Who would have known? And she just didn't want to drop in to eat, she wished to contribute something. I was quite moved.
When we opened the door, we welcomed people we had never seen before, and knew we'd probably never see again. That wasn't the point; we weren't doing it to attract new business, just to give back a wee bit. It was heartwarming serving these souls while working with volunteers, plus speaking with folks if they cared to chat while filling their tummies. There was a steady flow but we were never jammed; then as it trickled down by mid-afternoon, I let the volunteers go one-by-one, until I was the last person handling the buffet set up on our counter. Finally, one person was there, hesitantly asking if there was any cost. I responded "No. It's free. Please, help yourself."
I noticed that this gentleman wore what appeared to be second-hand but clean clothes including a well-worn navy pea coat; he sat alone by our large front window as he began his meal. He spoke very, very slowly. "This - is - so - good!" I was taken aback. He obviously had difficulty forming his words, carefully planning what he was going to say. I didn't want to intrude into his space, his thoughts, so I simply replied "Thank you. I'm glad you're enjoying it."
After taking his time, he finally finished. Again he said "This - is - so - good. May - I - have - a - little - more?" I responded "Absolutely. We have plenty, and you're probably the last one." He came back to put a little more on his plate, then carefully ate that. As he got up to bring his (scrupulously) empty plate back and started to thank me, I said: "We still have more food and I think no more are coming, so we'll close. Would you like me to put some into take out containers for you to take with you?" He responded: "That - would - be - so - kind. I - could - really - use - it - later, - or - tomorrow."
He stood quietly as I filled several take out containers to the brim, I felt a lump in my throat. I then bagged them for him to easily carry, and he slowly thanked me once again. "Thank - you; - that - was - so - good. Merry - Christmas, - Sir." I said goodbye to him, shook his free hand at the door, and locked it after he left. I watched as he made his way down the street until he finally disappeared. I went to the counter to get all the remaining food ready for a city counsellor, who was coming by to take it to a shelter.
But before I could start my packaging, I went to the back as the floodgates opened and quietly cried. I wasn't happy nor sad. I just wondered who that soul was I'd never see again; what was his story, what had he been through, why was he probably alone, what was his life like, where would he go?
Indeed, I was right, he never returned. But as the years spilled into decades, I always wondered, never forgot, that solitary man. And to this day, I cannot tell that little (Dickensian) story or even think about it, without my eyes filling, the lump in my throat returning. May God please bless him, wherever. And you too, everyone, this Christmas.