Christmas stories often involve a selfish man, like Ebeneezer Scrooge or The Grinch, who learns an important lesson. For today’s purpose, that man is me. The holiday season unfolds, but our hero goes on with his usual grind. In my case, I’m armored against the holiday because I’m Jewish. No tree. No dinner. No nothing.
Except one thing. Every year there is the Sun-Times Letters to Santa Program. The paper invites readers to request a poignant letter from a needy student, then buy gifts for that child. Each year I wait for someone running the program to invite me to write about it, whereupon I grumblingly comply.
But this year the paper didn’t ask. At first I was relieved. I had dodged the obligation: no schlep to Target, no squinting at childish scrawl, no being confronted with some heretofore unimagined nightmare realm of toys, “A Mister Poo-Poo-Dee-Doo Dispenser?”
I was free. Or so I thought. Leaving the office a week before the letter deadline. I punched the elevator button and my gaze fell on the cheery tableau someone had set up. A table wrapped like a big present, with a red velvet bow. Twin trays of letters, one from boys, one from girls. Children who would not receive presents unless some person took one and purchased those presents.
A person, I realized with a sigh, such as me. I marched over, took the first letter off the top of the boys’ pile and pushed it into my briefcase. I didn’t even look at it.
“Santa that you” it began in a 7-year-old’s scrawl, “sleep well?” Well, no honestly. He lays out the bona fides. “I do my homework,” then gets to the business at hand. “I want the indoraptor lookwood state and blues hilocopter pursuit please Santa.”
Right away! My wife and I headed to Target to get two of the requested Jurassic Park toys. To round out the ensemble my wife found a dinosaur t-shirt.
A few days later, I wrapped the gifts. I grabbed a Metra train to work. Quite a bit on your lap, a briefcase and a big bag of presents. So I put the toys in the overhead rack. I was about to tell my wife, “Now don’t let me forget these.” But I didn’t. I’m a big boy; I can look after myself.
I read the paper. Shuffled the long line out of the station. Caught the Madison Street bus in front of Ogilvy Station, west toward the office. Taking a seat on the No. 20, I checked my email, because I hadn’t checked it for 15 minutes. The first began, “We are still in need of Sun-Times elves for this year’s Letters to Santa project..”
The presents … in the overhead rack … on the train.… I bolted from my seat, my stomach a hollow pit. We were at the next stop, two blocks away.
Exiting the bus, I ran, arthritic hip and all, loping down the street like Quasimodo. It had only been a few minutes. Pound down the stairs at Union Station. The train was gone.
I rushed to the lost and found. The clerk said there was nothing. I actually glanced around him, vainly searching.
I felt horrible. Far worse than I should have: so where’s the harm? Back to Target, pick up a new set of gifts. It wasn’t the money. What’s money to a guy like me? It was the bonehead mistake, the hassle of correcting it. What if the Target didn’t have the requested toys left? I’d have to go to other Targets, and my life would devolve into a miserable search to regain what I had lost.
One hope. I had tucked the boy’s letter under the ribbon holding the presents together. Someone might see it and call the school, which I did now, talked to an administrator, said, if someone found the gifts and called, tell them to bring them to the Union Station lost and found, where I would collect them.
There was work to do, thank God, another column to write, which at this point is like engraving the Lord’s Prayer on a grain of rice to be dropped into one of those 50 pound burlap bags of rice from Costo, then immediately cooked into a giant tub of rice pilaf that sits neglected in a warming tray in an endless food line in the lower reaches of Hell.
The phone rang. The school. “Guess what we have here?” The lost presents. And the Metra employee who found them and immediately drove over. “Do you want to talk to her?” I did, thanking her profusely. She didn’t want to talk on the record, but I knew someone who did.
“That is the kind of people we are,” said Metra spokeswoman Meg Reile, “the kind of spirit we have. They really get into this, at this time of year. It does not surprise me in the least that somebody went that extra mile.”
What do we learn from this story, as Christmas Eve settles over Chicago? Two lessons. First, don’t wait for someone to ask. You might miss a chance to help. The children at our school got their gifts this year. The Sun-Times will begin lobbying for your assistance nine months from now.
Mark it on those new calendars.
And second, there is always another chance to do good. One nice act has a way of pin balling around and benefiting others. That Metra employee thought she was relaying a present to a needy child, and she was. But she was also relieving the forehead-slapping regret of one dimming bulb columnist sitting in little cubicle on North Racine Avenue, transporting him from low spirits to laughing relief.
The power is in your hands, in each of our hands. Fate will serve up opportunities to be indifferent or involved, to be cold or kind. Pick involved and kind as often as possible, and you will reward more people than you realize, including yourself.