We’re all supposed to feel happy and joyous at Christmas, but we know this isn’t the case for many of us.
Selfishly, and at the risk of sounding self-serving, I decided to spend part of Christmas Day trying to spread a little joy in my corner of the world.
I woke my three sons early to make bologna and cheese sandwiches and PB&Js, and assemble bags of pretzels and other snacks. I packed up the food, gathered dozens of pairs of socks, used running shoes and random clothing items, and drove to some of the well-known intersections in Syracuse, NY, where the homeless ask for help.
Three hours later, I had unloaded most of what I had packed into the car.
The day — which began at 3 degrees below zero — was marked by rewarding encounters with more than half a dozen men, many of whom walk the streets pushing shopping carts holding everything they own.
One encounter will forever be etched in my memory. I had met James a few days before, when I pulled over and gave him the nickel returnable bottles I had in my trunk. James said he’s been living on the streets for 20 years, and regularly collects returnables for cash rather than stand at corners holding a sign asking for help.
I saw James early on my Christmas rounds and pulled over. He recognized me from our previous meeting, and I handed him a food bag and bottle of water. He didn’t want any socks or shoes, pointing to a huge garbage bag in his cart and indicating he was all set.
We talked for a few minutes — he’s a very articulate man — and I told him I’d have more returnables for him in a few days. He told me where he sleeps (under cover near one of Syracuse’s many vacant buildings) and wished me a Merry Christmas.
I got back in my car — to warm up, as temperatures were in the teens — and watched as James pushed his cart down the street. I was just about to pull away when I noticed he had stopped and was eating one of the sandwiches that my sons had made.
The image of a man standing on an empty city street on this particular morning, eating the most basic of foods as he stood next to a battered shopping cart, has re-defined Christmas for me. It was a most humbling scene.
I had my camera with me, as I always do, and part of me wishes I could have captured that moment. I certainly don’t need a photo to remember it, but the power of photography — moreso than the written word — can certainly motivate people to help their fellow human beings.
I don’t know James well enough yet to even consider asking if I could photograph him. Someday I will, but to do so requires earning his trust. I want to know the rest of his story, share it and hope it sparks some kindness to those less fortunate.
For now, all I know is that James has put Christmas into its proper perspective, and I want to honor that.