So it’s 6 in the morning on New Year’s Day, and I am outside of the downtown Minneapolis library waiting for a bus to go to work. It is exactly zero degrees, and the sleet is hitting my cheek faster that I can wipe it away. I am feeling extremely sad because I didn’t slam whiskey shots or kamikaze shooters for New Year’s Eve, but, instead spent the night with Ryan Seacrest who is not awesome and no fair substitute for Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve. I fell asleep well before midnight and woke up before the shrill of my alarm clock, well rested, like a jerk. This all makes me feel very old. Plus, it is freezing at this bus stop, and the bus must be on a really long detour.
But then an old, homeless guy walks over to me. He’s wearing a Santa hat, and with his shock of white, snarled hair, he’s a little too much of a holiday caricature for me to take this early in the morning. So I don’t pay him, or the two large black garbage bags he’s lugged behind him, much attention. But I do notice that he’s wearing dirty men’s tube socks for gloves. He catches me looking and tells me how a guy at the shelter had taken his gloves while he was sleeping. He goes on to say that it wasn’t so much the loss of his gloves that bugged him but the fact that he thought this particular guy wouldn’t do him like that. Now, I know a lot about betrayal, so I instantly feel bad for the guy but I harden myself against it. The bus can break your heart if you let it, plus it’s way too early to care about things. But there’s something about old Santa, something a little broken, and I really want to fix him up. So I say, “Well, it could’ve been worse; at least he didn’t take your boots.” And he really brightens for a second, flashes me this infectious, yet broken tooth smile. And I brighten too, forgetting all about how sad I was for not spending New Year’s Eve as a raging alcoholic.
So the #17 finally comes and old Santa doesn’t have the fare but the driver lets him on after busting his balls a little bit. We both find seats toward the front and I go into my purse to grab a book when I realize I’ve got an extra pair of mittens in there. Now, I’m sure my next step should be obvious but I’ve got my fathers voice in my head; he railed against my naturally sympathetic nature with such classics as: “Never volunteer for anything” and “Always look out for number one: yourself.” So I have to think about it a little bit. What I end up thinking is that since I’m about a single paycheck away from standing at the freeway with a cardboard sign, it might be in my best interest to throw out a little good will.
I ask Santa if he’d like the extra pair and he takes them with a bit of reverence like I was handing over some sort of holy cross or star. He starts to rummage through those big black garbage bags that I’d forgotten all about and pulls out a handful of stuffed animal shaped hand puppets, and I am terrified. I hear my father’s voice in my head saying, “No Good Deed goes unpunished.” Out of the handful of puppets he grabs one that is in the shape of an old owl. It is patchy and old with wonky eyes and a peeling black nose that is holding on by a wing and a prayer. In short, it is the saddest hand puppet on this earth. Santa does a quick little puppet dance show for me then moves the puppet close to my face. I realize that in order to add some merriment, my buddy has attached a piece of plastic mistletoe to its face and wants me to give it a little kiss.
Now, in retrospect, I can see a lot of ways out of this. There’s the honest, obvious fact that this stuffed animal is filthy and sad and came out of a homeless man’s garbage bag. There’s also the fact that it is plastic mistletoe, not the real stuff, and I can probably weasel out on a technicality. But at the time I just didn’t see a way to backtrack. We had shared a moment of real and true optimism together. Who was I to turn down this gift? And if I did, would there be consequences? Would he take one of those warm mittens I’d given him and slap me across the face with it, like an old Frenchman preparing for a duel? This is the kind of thinking that happens before I’ve had a caffeinated beverage. I just didn’t see a safe way backwards so when he puts that terrible owl up to my face I reach down and kiss it, real gently and quick. I say, “Good day, Sir Owl,” and the old guy squeals with delight. He starts packing up the hand puppets, and I am several bus stops past relieved. Just then, another guy gets on the bus. He is well dressed in a brand new jacket and boots and his nails are well manicured. By all accounts he appears to be a normal citizen. But there’s something about those new clothes, the way they hang on him a bit. And within about five minutes of hearing him talk nonstop I realize he has a creative view of reality. My homeless buddy looks real uncomfortable and he turns to me, all-conspiratorial and says, “That guy is NUTS.” Now, I’m thinking maybe the guy with the garbage bag full of hand puppets and the wacky girl making out with them shouldn’t really be judging the sanity of others. But since I love to be included in stuff, I just nod my head and smile. He bows to me a little as he exits the bus and I never see him again.
And this is why part of me loves the bus; even in the middle of a sleet storm it’s the cheapest show in town. You give up $1.75 and anything can happen, if you let it. Maybe an octogenarian will tell you about the time he shot a mugger in the butt or maybe an old drunk will Indecent Proposal you. Or, maybe, if you’re really lucky you’ll end up on the world’s longest detour and a homeless Santa will put on a puppet show where you’ll finally get over yourself.
Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Randy Stern