What does that mean to most people? Family dinners with a big turkey, two kinds of potatoes and four kinds of pies? Being dragged out of bed by the kids at an ungodly hour because Santa came? Football games on TV?
For most of us, it's some combination of the above. A few years ago, I decided it was time for me to do something a little different so, for me, Christmas means packing up my pink bags with socks, gloves, hats and toiletries and hitting the streets to find the forgotten people. This year, I was joined by my friend, the wonderful Dawj Sangster of The Six Brown Chicks, and her son, Lee, who is home on leave from the military.
We met at our designated place (a packed Dunkin' Donuts downtown) and hit the streets. It didn't take long for us to see someone. James, an unemployed actor who was here for the Occupy Chicago movement, entertained us with highly animated, friendly banter as he pan handled for change. He didn't need any of what we had to offer but thanked us all the same.
As we moved down Michigan Avenue toward Jackson Street, we began finding people. Another James. Then a Timothy. We met Tony who wants a 1-day train pass so he can set his things down and rest. We ran into yet another James. On and on we walked, sharing our goods, talking, lending an ear, praying for people when asked to do so. I never push my faith on people but, if they ask, of course I'll be happy to pray with them. And they do ask. We met a tiny little woman named Tasha, who is a domestic abuse victim. We ran into Ken, one of my favourites, who always greets me with a laugh and a smile, "Heyyyy! It's the pink bag lady!" Dawj gently wrapped a pretty pink scarf around the neck of a woman named Peggy, who began to cry. "This is terrible. Nobody should be alone on Christmas," she whispered, shoulders trembling.
Today, the person who broke my heart was a man named John. He's been homeless since May. John made the mistake so many people do when they first live life out on the streets - in sheer exhaustion, he fell asleep on the train. As he slept, someone cut his pockets and stole his ID. Once a homeless person's ID is stolen, they, effectively, cease to exist. Coming up with the required money and proper identification (mail with a current address) for a replacement ID is an overwhelming obstacle. And without proper identification, a homeless person cannot get public aid.
So what does all of this have to do with John? Recently, he was hospitalized with cellulitis. Once his hospitalization was over, John was put back out on the streets and handed a prescription to be filled. Because he has no ID, he can't get public aid. Because he can't get public aid, he needs to pay full price for the medication to the tune of $70. He had no idea it was that expensive but, recently, kind-hearted passers by offered to pay for the antibiotic. They took his prescription to the nearest drug store, then quickly returned emptyhanded and said they couldn't afford it. John doesn't want the cash. He just wants someone to fill his prescription. He's terrified that he's going to have to have his leg amputated if this doesn't get taken care of soon - and, sadly, his fear is valid. Meanwhile, he sleeps huddled in a corner near the Red Line stop on State Street. He tried sleeping in a homeless shelter but, while there, he contracted body lice. He shuddered and said with eyes closed, "Never again."
Originally, I'd planned to treat myself to a nice dinner for one after my trek (I was so in the mood for Indian cuisine) but, as I headed home with empty bags, I ran into two, hungry men. I had $20. I won't lie - I was tempted to ignore them and keep going. I really, really wanted Indian food. But I couldn't do it. There's no way I'd have enjoyed my meal if I knew I'd passed two people I could have helped and did nothing. With an inward sigh, I ran into the nearest McDonald's and got them each a McDouble, medium fries and a holiday apple pie. Me? I had a McChicken sandwich and you know what? It wasn't chicken saag and garlic naan but I'm glad I stopped anyway.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
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