That’s the spirit

When the going gets tough, the naked steel man starts talking

Photo By R.V. Scheide

Can you feel it, the chill in the air? The nights have grown colder than the economy, along with our seeming indifference toward others. Where is the spirit of Christmas? Has it been sucked down the black hole of the housing bubble’s collapse?

I was walking into the 19th Street Safeway recently and watched scores of shoppers stream out with their carts and strollers and bags stuffed full of groceries, past a wretched panhandler standing just outside the door. They carefully avoided eye contact with the vagrant, as if he was invisible, or some of his bad luck might rub off on them.

I fished a dollar out of my pocket, and as I approached the man, I noticed his right eye was missing. The socket was a raw, meaty hole, with what looked like the end of an optic nerve hanging out of it. I could have been in Bangladesh.

He had seen the doctor many times, he explained to me, since first injuring the eye in an industrial accident in 1991. The injury appeared fresh, but he assured me it wasn’t as bad as it looked. It’s just that every once in a while, what’s left of his right eye “swells up and explodes.”

“Thanks for your concern, though,” he said.

I always give money to homeless people. I don’t give a damn what they spend it on—food, liquor or a dime bag of weed. If I have a spare bill on me, I cough it up. A dollar may not get you off your knees, but it sure as hell will help get you through the night.

The one-eyed man unnerved me. I wondered if he was a member of the homeless encampment rousted by the Sacramento Police Department the previous day, as if they had anywhere else to go beside Loaves & Fishes. I decided to drive out to Tent Town, the small enclave of homeless people I wrote about last month (see “Hell’s half-acre,” SN&R Feature Story, November 6), to see if they’d been hustled off as well.

Crossing the railroad tracks at 20th and C streets in Midtown, I expected Tent Town to be gone, the elaborate campsites dismantled, their down-and-out occupants herded off by the authorities. However, to my pleasant surprise, I found it relatively unchanged. Most of the people I’d met, particularly those who had their outdoor skills together, were still hanging in there.

Merry Christmas, Tent Town.

I drove back toward civilization, the dead fingers of oaks and elms splayed across a blank slate sky, a mulch of fallen leaves plastered on either side of the roadway, as if I was being swallowed by nature’s dark, omniscient powers. I was passing the corner of 21st and L streets when I caught a silvery gleam out of the corner of my eye: Bob, the shiny metal mannequin that hangs out in front of the gift and greeting-card store Etc.

Perhaps he knew where the spirit of Christmas had gone!

As always, Bob’s hardened facial features were steely, inscrutable. His lithe, naked frame reflected the question right back at me. He was wearing a Santa cap, as he always does this time of year, yet he remained impervious to both my interrogation and the elements.

Then he beckoned me closer—I’m not sure how, perhaps with some sort of “metal” telepathy—and I swear to Kris Kringle, this is exactly what he whispered, his breath cool as a polar breeze:

“Shop local,” Bob said. “And if you have any spare change when you come out of one of our fine Sacramento establishments, why not loan it to someone less fortunate than you?”

’Tis the season.