I spent Christmas Eve volunteering in the kitchen at a homeless shelter to help with dinner service.
They were prepared for up 300 people, but COVID-19 had the numbers down. I helped prep 160 gallons of sweet potatoes, cut pie, and backed the staff by cleaning counters and clearing dishes, pots, and pans.
My youngest son was going to join me, but again, because of Covid, he opted out. He didn’t have it; he was just concerned he might catch it. Solid logic. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t miss him.
I don’t share this to pat myself on the back for anything virtuous. I did it to feel like I was doing something this holiday.
This is the first time I have been alone on the holidays in about 35 years. My kids are grown and I’m in the middle of a divorce that should have ended months ago—but between the disagreements my former wife and I have, and a court system backed up by Covid-related incidents and policies, we continue.
I need to know I can do things.
I had no plans for Christmas night. The shelter didn’t need me. “Quiet night,” I thought. I’m in Florida, and for Florida, it was chilly but nowhere near freezing.
The last time I remember being alone during this holiday, I was living in Boston, working at a psych hospital. I had spent the evening with my colleagues trying to serve up a nice meal and pleasant evening for the patients. After work, I had gone to a bar in Central Square to see Little Joe Cook and the Thrillers play.
A man and two women came in and sat beside me. I offered to buy drinks. They declined but he bought me one. I thanked him.
“Did you have to work tonight too?” I asked.
He laughed. One of the woman rubbed his shoulder and the other smiled.
“Little brother,” he replied, “I am always working. You see, carrying this is a 24-hour a day job.” He gestured to his crotch, then tossed his drink back. All of us in ear shot laughed.
“Peanuts!” crooned Joe Cook, and the Thrillers tore into their set.
It was funny, but he was also right. It’s a 24-hour a day job, just like being a woman is a 24-hour a day job, and with just as much debate about how to carry it out.
Back to the present, on Christmas night, I was watching a movie. I heard shouting down the hall and banging on a door. I figured the police or some sort of security staff would show up shortly, and tried to continue watching my movie.
Fifteen minutes passed, and although the cacophony had tempered, it continued. I stopped my movie. The banging persisted. I didn’t hear any police or security. I picked up an oak stick used for sword training, a bokken, and stepped into the hall. “Chill out!” I shouted. He didn’t stop. I repeated myself.
“Motherf*cker,” he yells at me, “I am not bothering you!”
“Yes, you are. I live here, unlike you.” He was banging on an Airbnb apartment.
“Motherf*cker! You got a stick! I want you to hit me with that stick!” and he runs at me. I could see that I was almost 40 years older than him. Young and dumb, ran through my mind.
“The stick is for self-defense, nothing else,” and I stood as he charged.
He stopped just in front of me, focused on the bokken. I held it in front of me, across my chest with both hands. He would either do nothing or would grab it and I would headbutt him. He didn’t know I didn’t need the stick.
“Hit me with it! Hit me! Hit me!” he screamed. His eyes were glassy, revealing his mind was far from clear.
I could have, but that would have been an attack; instead I stayed in place and repeated, “It’s for self-defense.” He did nothing. Names don’t hurt me.
At this point, two women ran from the room toward us. One grabbed the young man in a bear hug and the other stepped between us. Another man, a much larger man my age, emerged from the room. He apologized for the incident as the young women walked the young man to the room. He didn’t look at his father as they walked him past.
I knew why they hadn’t called the police. The father extended his hand and again apologized. I hugged him.
“God bless you,” he said.
“I have two sons who are young men too,” I replied. We retired to our respective apartments. I didn’t ask why they hadn’t simply let him in, in the first place, and avoided all of it.
It was a silent night that holy night.
New Year’s Eve, crowds in downtown Tampa had lined the bridges along the river for fireworks, and a heavy fog rolled. Fifteen minutes before the new year, the fire department deemed it unsafe to have a show. Thousands cheered for a man with his one roman candle and another with a set of sparklers as the new year fell.
I didn’t know what to expect in the hallway. I do have experience, not only being in pain, but being with people in pain and that knowledge tempered my fear, my ignorance. He could have tried to tackle me or had a knife. He didn’t, so I didn’t worry about it. He expected me to hit him with the bokken; I didn’t. The crowd expected fireworks, but there were sparklers.
We all adapted. We all went home safe and with a moment to remember.