A Flash From Old Fezziwig: Kindness Leaves Us All Richer
Reprinted from the December issue of PineStraw magazine.
It was getting dark and I was cold, standing outside the music shop where I'd just taken my last guitar lesson for the year, waiting for my dad to pick me up after his office Christmas party.
At age 13, the world I aspired to was a narrowly defined place. I had a dog named Hoss, never missed a broadcast of Carolina basketball, and was in love from afar with the music of George Harrison and a girl in my church youth group named Kristin, who was a year older and at least a head taller and didn't appear to know I even existed.
Mr. Weinstein asked me if I wished to wait inside and I thanked him and said no, my dad would be there any moment. He smiled, said goodnight, locked the door and pulled down the shade, switching off the shop's interior lights, leaving only the blinking Christmas lights in the window, undoubtedly anxious to be on his way home. Hanukkah had begun and Christmas Eve was less than a week away, and I stood in the dim foxfire gloaming provided by the twinkling lights, holding my secondhand Gibson and wondering why the blazes my old man was so late. His office was only a short distance away and I considered walking that way.
Suddenly there he was, his Buick easing up.
"Sorry I'm a bit late, Sport," he said cheerfully as I got in. "We ran a bit longer than I expected and I stopped to speak to Santa Claus." The car was warm and smelled pleasantly of something faintly spicy that turned out to be my mom's leftover Christmas cookies on the front seat.
My father made no apologies for his undisguised admiration for Christmas. Years later, when I read Charles Dickens' novella "A Christmas Carol" for the first time, I instantly recognized a kindred spirit in the character of old Fezziwig, the generous employer to whom a young and impressionable Ebenezer Scrooge is apprenticed. He is a jolly and kind man who symbolizes the milk of human kindness and the communal values of an age under assault from an emerging Industrial Age that emphasizes profits over people. As much as Scrooge admires his wonderful old employer, he later adopts the corporate greed and indifference of the new era.
Picking Up Bad Santa
"So you really met Santa, huh?" I gently needled my dad because, well, he was such an easy mark and often so unaccountably upbeat my brother Dickie and I sometimes called him Opti the Mystic.
He nodded. "I did indeed. Unfortunately he was sitting on a bench, rather down on his luck."
I could see he was serious about this. "What do you mean he was down on his luck?" I asked.
He smiled, though not with anything resembling amusement.
"I'll show you."
Instead of turning right on Friendly Avenue to go home where the Christmas lights burned and a warm meal awaited, he turned left on Market to go back downtown where the streets were dark and deserted.
We pulled up to an empty park near the old Confederate hospital and there on a bench - true to his word - sat a disheveled man in a Santa Claus suit.
"I'll only be a minute. You stay here."
He left the car running, got out and walked over to where the man was sitting. I saw a bottle of something in his hand. Santa's snowy beard was missing.
The two men conversed. I could see Santa waving his other hand animatedly, his angry voice fogging the frosty air. There was something in that hand, too. As the man got to his feet and started toward the car with my dad, I was alarmed to see he was holding a pistol.
"Hey, Bo," my dad said, opening my door. "Why don't you jump in back. We're going to give Santa a ride home."
Santa placed his empty bottle down on the curb and leered at me as I climbed out and he climbed in, still holding the pistol.
A Hot Meal, Handshake
In 1966 there wasn't much public awareness of homeless people - at least in the safe world I inhabited.
Before I could make sense of what was going on, Santa was rambling on about how he'd lost his job at a local department store simply for taking a holiday snort of Old Crow at lunch and now wouldn't have a paycheck to buy his "old lady and her kid" something for Christmas. In the stream of profanities and proclamations that tumbled out, he mentioned that his girlfriend was pregnant and he just might have to hit the road if he couldn't find a job and a decent place to live.
Santa, who smelled like an old crow and faintly resembled one, suddenly jerked around and eyed me and my secondhand Gibson, silent in the back seat.
"What can you play on that damn thing?" he demanded.
I replied that I knew almost every song on Rubber Soul, the Beatles' sixth album.
"The Beatles!" snarled Santa. "They ain't worth shit. How about some Hank Williams?"
We pulled up to the Irving Park Delicatessen and stopped. My dad got out and motioned me to follow. The three of us marched in and took a booth. The bar was decorated with evergreen and colored lights and the waitress recognized my old man, a frequent lunch patron. "Looks like Santa had a rough night," she playfully observed.
"Worse than you can guess, Sugar," brayed Bad Santa, winking at her. "But I can still give you a good one!"
Santa ordered an omelet and a plate of spaghetti and apple pie a la mode. My dad just had coffee. I was half-starved and ordered a grilled cheese sandwich. We watched Santa wolf down his eggs and dive into the spaghetti like there was no tomorrow. He ranted on about a dozen different things and finally calmed down about the time his pie a la mode arrived.
After this we drove him to a neighborhood of tiny box houses on the city's Northeast side. The house where we dropped him off was dark, but a porch light was on. My dad got out, asked me to stay put, and walked the man up to the door. In the half light, I saw him shake the man's hand and give him something. The man walked him back down the driveway and came over to my side of the car. I'd reclaimed the front seat and discovered the gun on the floor where he'd forgotten it. He motioned me to roll down the window. Reluctantly I did so. He grabbed my coat's collar with his bony fingers. My blood jumped.
"Listen, kid. You got a helluva old man," he wheezed. "He's a real Southern gentleman. Hope the hell you know that."
I nodded dumbly.
"Good. Don't forget it, Junior." He let go of my jacket and gave me a skeletal grin. "Feel free to keep that gun at your feet. I had planned to shoot myself with it. But it's only a toy."
He let loose a howl of laughter I can still hear and ambled on up the yard to the darkened house.
I never asked my father what he gave Bad Santa, though I suspect it was money for his lost wages. To this day, I'm not sure that was even Bad Santa's home.
The Fezziwig Spirit
But a year later when Greensboro's Urban Ministry started up, I wasn't the least bit surprised that my old man was one of its early enthusiastic supporters, marshaling volunteers and donations of clothing, food and money from his golf buddies and the Sunday School class he moderated at First Lutheran Church for more than two decades.
Not long before he passed away in 1995, as we sat together in my childhood bedroom where he was under care from Greensboro Hospice, I asked Opti if he remembered the night we took Bad Santa to supper at IPD.
He smiled at me. "How could I forget it? He hated the Beatles. And your mother wasn't very happy about us missing dinner."
"Did you know that wasn't a real gun?"
"No. But it seemed like the thing to do at the time. Everything is connected, you know."
"Only my father would try to cheer up a suicidal Santa Claus," I needled him.
Opti just smiled again.
An Honor to Help
One year ago, my friend, the artist Bill Mangum, a son of Pinehurst born to a single mom, invited me to drive up to Hickory to a special celebration service at the Exodus Missionary Church. Days before, I'd attended a luncheon at Christ Methodist Church kicking off the 24th year of Mangum's innovative Honor Card that has raised more than $4 million to battle homelessness, poverty and addiction in a dozen communities across North Carolina. Mangum got the idea for the Honor Card after buying lunch for a homeless man in Greensboro and developing a friendship and unexpected ministry from the relationship.
There was no Bad Santa at the luncheon, but there were dozens of people from the Triad who spoke movingly about their lost lives and the various local agencies that helped them regain equilibrium and dignity, in some cases a job, sobriety, and a caring home.
Up at Exodus Church, which does the Lord's work providing homeless and addicted folks with a community of healing and the chance to put their lives back together, I sat with a man who had been reunited with his daughter after 20 years of drug addiction and alcoholism and sleeping rough on the streets from Charlotte to Cleveland, Ohio. They'd recently talked for two hours on the phone.
"When I heard about this place from a man I just happened to meet while panhandling a few dollars," he told me, "something told me I needed to come here. I realized that this might be my last chance at life. It took several weeks for me to get here but they took me in. That was 15 months ago and I've been sober ever since and just found work at a local furniture factory."
As I looked at him - clean shaven, wearing a nicely pressed white shirt and leather jacket, a man who'd been lost but now was found - I realized I was looking at Bad Santa and the face of any of us who might fall between the cracks of life, a story as relevant today as it was in Charles Dickens' day.
As Exodus Church's rocking choir - largely former addicts and other souls who came in from the cold streets of a homeless nation - began a beautiful version of "Amazing Grace," the man leaned over to me and whispered with an unmistakable tremor in his voice, "You know the best thing? Guess what I'm getting for Christmas this year? My daughter is coming here all the way from San Diego and bringing her baby daughter with her. I'm finally going to meet my granddaughter!"
His brown eyes wobbled with emotion. It took me a moment to find my voice.
"I'm getting to be with my granddaughter for the holidays."
That evening up in Hickory, in an old refurbished brick church beneath a full Christmas moon, a packed house with stunning gospel songs and personal testimonies spoke powerfully to the transformative power of one human being caring for another - and reminded me of the cold winter night long ago when a modern day Fezziwig and his son took Bad Santa to supper and I discovered not everyone had a warm home and loving family.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Honor Card, which last year provided $240,000 of funding to Greensboro Urban Ministry.
Wouldn't it be lovely if next year the Sandhills participated in the extraordinary Honor Card program begun by its own native son? Wherever they are this Christmas, I'm sure Fezziwig and Opti the Mystic would enthusiastically agree.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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