A shopping cart, a PB&J sandwich and 3 degrees below zero

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.

One of my sons making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches Christmas morning.

One of my sons making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches Christmas morning.

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.

The temperature at 1 p.m. Christmas Day in Syracuse, NY. It warmed up from 3-below zero in the morning.

The temperature at 1 p.m. Christmas Day in Syracuse, NY, was 19 degrees. It warmed up from 3-below zero in the morning.

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.


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in food pantries, Homeless, hunger, Irish Investigations, poverty and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A shopping cart, a PB&J sandwich and 3 degrees below zero

  1. markbialczak says:

    Marvelous Christmas actions by the McKeever men. Thank you for letting the world in on your generous spirit and how it was so well received.


  2. Patti Fitzgibbons says:

    We will have to swap stories over beers in 2014, I , made a friend by the old hotel at Thanksgiving. Too many people living out in the cold, so sad. Thankful for all I have.


  3. Dennis H says:

    As someone once said to Gunga Din, “you’re a better man than I am.” Better than most of us. Nicely done.


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