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Mrs. Claus in Old Town

December 22, 2014

Since closing my illustration studio in Portland over a decade ago, I’ve had little reason to travel downtown, a place I’d avoid completely were it not for a certain food that calls to me like heroin summoning a junkie. Portland is famous for its many food trucks, and when my studio was operational I became addicted to lamb biryani, a curry and rice dish served up by a truck beneath a tawdry sign reading Taste of India.


Several days ago I was bored and struggling to generate enthusiasm for the Holidays. Lately, I’ve been feeling low, and housebound, and decided to take the train downtown to improve my mood—soak up Christmas lights, do a little shopping and treat myself to lamb biryani for lunch. Parking downtown is a nightmare so I drove to the light rail parking garage and spent half an hour hunting for a space. None were to be had so, unable to squash my desire for steamy chunks of curried rice and lamb, I drove downtown and spent another half hour looking for a parking space.


I’d departed from home so early that it was only 10:30 a.m. when I arrived at Food Truck Row. Only a few trucks were open, selling mostly coffee and pastry. Taste of India didn’t open until eleven so I sat down on a dirty bench to wait. It was too early for the well-heeled lunch crowd to arrive. We were close to the soup kitchens of Old Town and homeless people wandered around checking the contents of garbage cans. I didn’t think to bring an umbrella and it began drizzling. It was cold and I pulled my collar close. I tried to control my shivering by focusing on the delectable treat I was about to experience.


It took a while for me to notice the bag lady sitting on the far side of the bench. She was dressed in what appeared to be cast-off clothing—several old sweaters beneath a Chewbacca coat, and mismatched boots. Straw-like hair exploded from beneath an old fisherman’s cap. Beside her was a shopping cart filled with what I assumed were her worldly possessions. My painterly eye took in the details and I began mentally painting her. It saddened me to see her sitting alone, homeless, no family—a terrible way to spend your senior years, huddled in the cold with bums passing by, sitting beside a fat guy waiting impatiently for an Indian food truck to open. I began thinking I should have stayed home; I was more depressed than ever.


The sour-smelling old woman was squinting into a dog-eared book as I waited to order my biryani and drive it home, where I’d eat it away from the cold drizzle, in the warmth and comfort of my cozy suburban townhouse.


A toothless skeleton of a man ambled up and paused in front of the woman. She looked up from her book, and without saying anything reached into her stain-covered coat and extracted a half-filled package of  chewing tobacco. She handed it to him.


“Thanks, Mable.” He reached into his coat and pulled out a can of root beer, handing it to her.


She smiled, crooked yellow teeth. “I’ll save the can for you.”


He flashed her a toothless grin and walked away.


A girl in her twenties arrived. Tats covered most of her exposed flesh, except for a shaved head, exposed to the elements and covered in sores. Mable rose to prowl through her shopping cart, extracting a partially squeezed tube of ointment.


The girl reached down and hugged her, saying, “Thanks, Mable.” From under her jacket she produced a paperback as worn as the one Mable had been reading. “I hope you haven’t read this one.”


Before storing it away, Mable ran her hand over the tattered cover like it was a Dickens first edition.


Taste of India opened promptly at 11:00 and I placed my order. By then, I’d seen a dozen people approach, calling Mable by name. Some had gifts for her but most did not, yet she had a present for everyone: a single glove for someone with a bandaged hand, a neatly rolled fragment of duct tape, a broken but still usable umbrella. I was amazed to see these motley souls walking away, smiling with a spring in their step, fondling something that moments ago I’d have considered trash. December 25th was still a week away, but at that moment I felt like Scrooge pushing open his window after being visited by three ghosts.


Although she was gone by the time I collected my order, she even had a present for me. I returned to my car with my twelve dollar lunch, knowing the biryani would fill my stomach, but the bag lady on the bench had given me a gift to nourish my soul, something I sorely needed—the spirit of Christmas.








Merry Christmas, Stephen, and thank you
By: Uncle Skip on December 22, 2014
Now this is a splendid Christmas Story! Have a great Christmas and Happy 2015!
By: Kathe W. on December 22, 2014
Yes!! Mable was one of those angels in disguise! What lovely moments you were privy to. :) Merry Christmas!!
By: Rita McGregor on December 22, 2014
Huzzah for the Spirit of matter the form it takes. What a wonderful story. As always with you special take on the world. I loved it and will count it among my presents this year as well. xoxo Oma Linda
By: Oma Linda on December 22, 2014
Great story!
By: Cranky on December 22, 2014
Splendid story Stephen- your bench buddy defines the true Christmas spirit that we all seek and hope to find during this hustle bustle season. I'm glad she touched your heart and your story has touched mine. Merry Christmas!
By: Coloring Outside the Lines on December 22, 2014
Oh, shucks, I thought you were going to get a second order and give it to Mabel.
By: Catalyst on December 22, 2014
She owns the Christmas spirit and is in essence a wealthy woman with many friends.
By: Akansas Patti on December 22, 2014
A well told story. You had my attention right to the end.
By: red on December 22, 2014
You're a lucky man. Merry Christmas to you and Mrs. C
By: Daniel LaFrance on December 22, 2014
She's Santa and the spirit of Christmas both past and present. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on December 22, 2014
Happy Christmas! She knows how to keep it well.
By: mimi on December 22, 2014
Love it!
By: Val on December 22, 2014
Wonderful account. You should try to paint what you saw, and maybe then donate it to a shelter in the area.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on December 22, 2014
Amazing story! Merry Christmas is in the air.
By: Bouncin Barb on December 23, 2014
Merry Christmas Stephen I hope you and Mrs C have a blessed day
By: Jimmy on December 23, 2014
I was surprised this year by how people don't seem to be looking forward to Christmas, but then it can be a difficult time for so many. I feel humbled by your story. It's a great post, Stephen, thank you. I hope you and Mrs C have a lovely Christmas and very best wishes for 2015.
By: Sharon Bradshaw on December 24, 2014
What a heart warming story Stephen, all the more so as it was just what you needed at the time. Wishing you and yours all the very best over the festive season!
By: John on December 24, 2014
A wonderful story. So interesting how human beings can chisel out valued roles even in the most adverse circumstances.
By: Bryan Jones on December 24, 2014
Thanks for this story - I needed to read it today!
By: The Bug on December 26, 2014

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