From the Archives: A Christmas Carol (2000)

At the finale of the Christmas show last year in Eugene, OR, I came out as a skid row Santa, complete with a rubber nose, plastic bag full of beer cans and a pint of peppermint schnapps to get the Christmas spirit going. I also borrowed my wife Faye’s blue egg bucket and labeled it “homeless.” I jingled the cans like a bag of aluminum sleigh bells as I worked the main aisle seats: “Hey, come on, mate. Put something in the bucket, for heaven’s sake. Don’t you know it’s Christmas time? Hey, that’s better. God bless you. You’re beautiful.”

I ended up only having about seventy-five dollars. Not much for a full house at a Christmas show. But even seventy-five dollars was a wad too much to pocket. So, having shed my red suit and rubber muzzle, I set out to find a worthy recipient. In the 7-Eleven lot on the corner of Sixth and Blair, I spotted a likely selection of candidates. I swung myself in and held the bucket out the window.

“Good. Who is the luckiest in this bunch?”

The contestants looked at me and backed away—all but one, with ponytails and sloping shoulders, his chin tucked into the collar of a canvas camouflage jacket. “I had a losing streak all the way back to New Jersey,” he said. “What about it?”

“I’m on a mission from St. Nicholas,” I told him. “And if you’re actually the least lucky of them all” — in spirit of the season, I forgot to say “biggest loser” — “then this could be your lucky night.”

“Right,” he said. “You’re some kind of Holy Roller? Where’s the cord? What’s the rush?”

“No cord, no hook, no hassle. I give. You get. Got it?”

He has. He took the money and ran, taking Faye’s bucket of eggs with him. The last time I saw him he scurried off looking for a hole.

Since then I have wondered about him. Did that little stroke of luck make a difference? Did he rent a cheap room? To take a bath? A companion? Every time I drove through one of Eugene’s unlucky ports, I kept half an eye out for the sight of a long tail of black hair trailing down the back of a camouflage jacket. Last week, exactly a year later, I did a sighting.

I was in town with Faye and our daughter to do some Christmas shopping before meeting my mom for dinner. We’d spent a few hours in the malls and I was booked. I announced that I wanted to do some private shopping and slipped out alone into the rainy cold. I was on my way to the liquor store on Eighth, thinking the spirit could use a little refreshment. But the trusty peppermint wasn’t strong enough. These hometown streets are just too weird to leave, too sad. Sixth corner at Olive: empty. The big Dangold dairy my father built from a small Eugene farmer’s co-op: bulldozed down. I lowered my head and continued walking in the rain.

The street I remembered was the clearer route anyway: John Warren’s Hardware over there where you could buy explosive powder over the counter; the Corral Novelty Shop, where you could buy itch powder; the Heilig-Theater, with its arch running across the street, flashing the Norwegian word for hello, which we all thought meant hello, so big you could read it from the windows of the incoming trains :” Holy, holy, holy.” All gone.

As I reached the town center I noticed that the thing people had finally given up calling fountains had been re-dressed with pine boughs and potted plants. But without success. It still looked like the remains of a bombed out French cathedral. Then, as the rain subsided, I was surprised to find that the ruins weren’t entirely deserted: I saw a loose black braid hanging down the back of a camouflage jacket. That seemed right. He was in the basin of the old well, hunched in a hiding crouch by one of the potted pines.

I came up from behind and slapped his shoulder with my hand. “What are you doing, bad luck? Are you counting another bucket of money?”

He turned and grabbed my wrist in a bone-crushing grip before I could finish the word. Then I saw that it wasn’t a chinless street rat standing in the pool. This was a block-jawed Indian built like two fire candles and seated in a wheelchair.

“Ouch! Man! Let go! I thought you were someone else!”

He loosened his grip but kept his wrist. I told him about last year’s long hairstyle and the matching jacket.

He listened and studied my eyes. “OK. Sorry about the twist. I took a leak. You surprised me. Let’s get out of the rain and see what kind of medicine you got out of your bag.”

We retreated under scaffolding. He was anything but enthusiastic about my choice of pocket medicine. “I’d rather drink something like Southern Comfort if I have to choose a sugary drink,” he said. But we walked the pint back and forth and watched the rain.

He leaned forward to spit, and a folded army blanket slipped off his lap. His legs were as gone as my poor hometown’s main intestine.

He was a part-time filet vendor from Pike Place Market up in Seattle on his way to spend Christmas with his family at “the rez” outside of Albuquerque. His bus stood still for a few hours: “I think they’ll have the greyhound spayed before she comes to California.”

When the pint was about three-quarters empty, I unscrewed the cap and held it up. “I have to get to know the women. Go ahead and keep it.”

“Ah, I don’t think so,” he said.

“You’re pretty picky for a thirsty man, aren’t you? What would your best brothers be?”

“To have the money and make my own choices.”

I reached for my wallet. “I think I got a few bucks.”

“And a quarter? If I had two dollars and a quarter, I could get a pint of Ten High. With four and change, I’d go for a fair to mid-fifth. Cream of Kentucky.”

I hesitated. Have I been rushed? “Okay, let’s see what we have.” I emptied the wallet and pockets on his blanket. He added a few coins and counted the collection.

“Nine seventy-five. If I can get two more bucks, I’ll get a bottle of Bushmill’s Irish. You think I can beg two bucks between here and the liquor store?”

“Without a doubt,” I assured him. “Tied with both panhandles behind the back.”

We shook hands goodbye and hit the road, strolling and rolling through the rain. At the restaurant, my mom wanted to know what I was thinking, which earned me such a goofy grin.

“I just thought that if beggars cannot be voters, then it must follow that voters are not beggars by definition.”

This year, Santa Claus has dressed up for the Christmas show and enlisted some holiday helpers from the high school choir. God bless you. And we will work all the gears. Come out, you helpers, come out. Get down there and panhandle! And you people in the audience are starting to give your money to the aisles here. This is no time for nickel and dime, for goodness sake! It is Christmas time.

Ken Kesey, one of the Merry Pranksters, is the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Idea.

High Times Magazine, December 2000

Read the whole issue here.

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