I was twenty years old. I had no job, no money, and was living in a homeless shelter in Chester, PA, near Philadelphia.
I don’t remember a lot of things during that time. I remember the trees had shed their leaves, and Chester tended to be a generally gray colored place, even in the brightest sunshine. The architecture, in the area I was, varied between rundown row houses and almost gothic appearing granite edifices of buildings.
I think what I remember best, what is most clear to me, was being hungry. Not the hunger of a missed lunch, or the hunger of craving. This was a low, gnawing hunger, one that was the result of too many days of responding to the growl with a few punches to the stomach and some delicious brown-tinged water, spiced with the occasional teaspoon of peanut butter (which fought off the growl so that I could sleep).
I had a couple of friends, kind people who simply saw a young man in need. Most days I would walk the nineteen city blocks to my friend Brian’s house for a few games of cards and some warmth or cooling, but not everyday, because I didn’t want to be a burdensome pest. Sometimes, I would walk the twenty-nine blocks to our mutual friend Derek’s house, to see if he was home. He worked as a truck driver, and more often than not was out.
But, this was thanksgiving. The day was overcast, and I had left the shelter, reasoning that if they wanted me out of the shelter every other day before ten A.M. not to return until late afternoon, I shouldn’t burden them with my presence this day. I was happy that it wasn’t terribly cold, because I had recently given my jacket to a shirtless man who had come to the shelter after curfew, and was looking forward to a night spent on a park bench or in a subway shelter(at least until he would be woken by a policeman’s friendly prod to move along, or a playful teen’s lighthearted kick… always leading to a poor night’s sleep).
I had gotten lucky, as well. A friend of Derek’s, a young man that I didn’t know well, had invited me to have thanksgiving dinner with his family. I had an address, a few blocks from Derek’s house. I thought of taking the bus, but two dollars spent on a bus was two dollars that could go just as well towards a pack of cigarettes or a later bite of food. (Yes, I would choose to buy cigarettes instead of food. Hunger plus nicotine withdrawal is a misery that I didn’t want to contend with.)
I walked through the gray day, down a street I didn’t know well. It was only a couple of streets off the “main” road that passed through Chester, but I didn’t know it at all. I took my time, not wanting to be early or anything. I looked at the houses I passed, this being an area with more single houses than row houses. They were small brick affairs, generally well-maintained, with green grass turning yellow surrounded by low, steel chain-link fences.
I came, finally, to the address. The young man and a few of his fellows were on the front porch, and I stood at the front gate in hesitation. Unfamiliar people always unnerved me, and I guess I hesitated long enough to be noticed, as one of them called out a greeting to me.
I don’t remember walking to the door, or greeting the young men. I don’t remember their names, and their faces are somewhat a blur. Young men, under thirty years of age, well-dressed in my estimation. A called greeting and genuine smiles of welcome. Shaken hands and an opened door that led to a warm living room.
I remember sitting on the floor and listening to the talk, the young men in the living room, a grandmother and a few relatives in the kitchen beyond. The smells that came from that room made my stomach rumble demandingly.
I don’t remember if the TV was on, or what was discussed, but I remember thinking about what the food would be like. The memory of the tastes of childhood were rejected, as I expected this to be “new” and “different” for some unknown reason. I remember rubbing my hand on the soft carpet, trying to soak in the warmth held there, enjoying the softness of it.
After a time, the call of food being ready was issued from the kitchen. I was handed a foam tray and a plastic fork. I took some of everything and went and sat back down in the living room to eye my tray. I waited for everyone else to get their food and a quick prayer of thanks was offered by the grandmother, who turned immediately back to the kitchen.
I ate as much as I could, but my desire for a feast had made my eyes bigger than my stomach. I took my time, listening to talk of football and work and girlfriends, and enjoyed that warmth. I ate until my stomach hurt.
I have other memories of thanksgiving, granted. Of family times with mom and dad and aunt and uncle. Long car rides to visit family and good food, but this one stands out. They owed me nothing, I was just a hungry stranger. Every year since this memory, though, I have thought back on this one in particular. That year, I gave thanks. Thanks for a full belly and warmth. Thanks for a small kindness. Thanks for good people in the world.
This thanksgiving taught me many things. That good people were good people, and that race was nonsense. I was the only person there with “white” skin, but I had been there “with” them, “inside”. They were/are good people, and if there was one or two, then there are others, and generosity and kindness are the things that stand above all else in my memory.
If you were there, and you read this, know that I thank you for that day. You gave me not just food or warmth for a few hours, but a new outlook, one that has stuck with me to this day.