oranges-and-chocolate brigade

i got to thinking about frozen people. got to thinking about folks with no choice about being in the cold.

what got me thinking were the folks i was passing as i made my way through the bone-chilling day. the crews cutting down trees, their limbs barely moving as they hoisted their saws in their orange puffy suits. a guy, red-cheeked, frost-bearded, standing in the middle of the road with a pole, measuring something that couldn’t wait ’til a day with bearable temperatures.

i thought of the mail carriers, the garbage haulers, the firehose aimers. i thought of the crossing guards, the meter readers, the ruptured water main fixers. i thought of my friend who bundles up like an inuit, she says, and walks 20 minutes to work, her cheeks so numb she probably can’t smile when she gets there, not for a good half an hour.

then i really got to thinking about frozen people. i started thinking about dirt man and tax man and refrigerator man. i thought about shorty and squeaky and a guy named everett, who’d built himself a multiplex of boxes up on a platform so the rats couldn’t get in, down in the bowels of the city, down under lower wacker drive.

i met the whole civilization of under-street inhabitants a year or so ago, when i tagged along with two saints, named frank and kay fennell.

frank and kay do an amazing, uncomplicated thing: they flip open the trunk of their car, they fill it with boxes of home-cooked food, and every thursday night, for 17 years now, they drive down to the depths of the city.

they cruise the streets of lower wacker, park, stick their heads around corners, poke behind pillars. they open their trunk, spoon hot food on plates, pour glasses of water. they feed the hungry. and this time of year, they feed the near frozen.

you might have heard all the news bulletins. the city is begging the homeless to come in off the streets, off the sidewalks where they stretch out on a pile of flimsy blankets, inch as close as they can to the heating vents at the bases of shimmering towers.

well, the folks who call the streets home, aren’t much interested in leaving. they’ve got reasons aplenty why they can’t stand the shelters. and if you ask questions, if you listen, you hear the pain, you hear the fear that keeps them locked where they are.

i wrote here the other day that my first instinct when arctic winds hit is to hunker down, to draw into my cave. well, sometimes, i told myself as i thought about frozen people, you need to dig beyond that. sometimes you need to pull up your second instinct.

and that’s when i hatched what you might think is a laughable idea.

but, heck, this world needs something to laugh about almost as much as it needs something else: the courage of plain old anybodys to get up, to get out of their houses, to walk up to a stranger, a cold, hungry stranger, to hand him or her a brown paper bag, a bag filled with oranges and chocolate and the solid conviction that if we don’t notice the cold hungry stranger, if we don’t let him or her know that he or she isn’t forgotten, we might as well pack it up, call it a day, shut out the lights, sign off the planet.

i call it the oranges-and-chocolate brigade.

my guardian angel in these matters, kay fennell, once told me: “we decided it was our job to sustain [these people] for whatever their next step would be. and that might be just to stay alive for the next 24 hours.”

so i went to the store, got oranges and hershey bars, reese’s cups, too. grabbed a stash of brown bags and started to fill. this morning i’m headed down to the bowels of the city, where dirt man and tax man were last seen on the grubby old blankets inside torn cardboard boxes, desperately trying to keep their flesh and their blood at least half alive.

before i even get there, i know, i’ll pass the men who hawk papers in the middle of oncoming lanes. or one of the folks who hover at intersections, dodging green lights, with the signs in their raw, frozen fingers. “homeless, please help.”

it’s not much, oranges and chocolate in a brown paper bag. but it’s fuel in the cold. and it might be something a little more than that.

it might maybe say, in case anyone’s listening, that we will not let the cold and the hungry lay down one more night thinking the world has forgotten, the world has gone cold. that’s a lot to ask of plain oranges and chocolate. but if we don’t ask, who will not wake, frozen, all through?

here’s the plot, simply: take a few lunch bags. toss in oranges and chocolate, anything else that you fancy. haul ‘em into your car. you don’t need to drive to the depths of the city to find cold folk. how ‘bout this: when you see someone out working, someone without much of a choice, roll down your window, stop your car. reach out your arm, get out from behind the wheel, even. put your brown bag in his or her hand. smile. say what you will. then go on your way. or bring ‘em home for a hot home-cooked dinner. your choice. always your choice.

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