"She told me she has no hope," I later told Ross by phone. "I do, but how do you extend that to somebody, and what kind of crappy Christmas present would that be anyway for her?" Ross had no answer.
This past Christmas was a day of record-breaking heat followed by a night cold enough to be seriously uncomfortable if you had to sleep outdoors -- a crime in San Diego. Not a problem for me; I have a pretty good apartment with heat, and I could smile along with the weather lunatic on "KyoooooSI," who cheerfully commented on that cold "breeeeeeze!" that makes for a cozy night's sleep for most of us here in town. James Brown died that day. I received an anthology of short stories from my son and a weekend visit. In the late afternoon, I was again at 12th and Imperial as the sun was staining the clock tower a white-gold and lemon.
Victor Freeman is a stagehand, originally from Las Vegas, now staying at Saint Vincent's. "I got arrested here in San Diego for letting my ten-year-old drive a car. I spent three months in jail. The court ordered parenting classes for me and, of course, staying sober." Freeman is 55, fit-looking, employable-looking, and amenable: a regular and pleasant Joe dealt a screwy hand by life but taking this weird crossroads in stride. "I was in the news for that. I had just come from a beach party, and I was kind of loaded. It was just about a few blocks home, so I let my son drive. That car was overheating, so it actually was a little dangerous. I'm doing shows here at the convention center in San Diego now, working with the Teamsters here.
"We had a sit-down breakfast at Saint Vincent's. It was great." Freeman has two sons in Carlsbad, the other aged 8. He is able to visit them with a disabled bus pass that the shelter helped him obtain. "They're helping me get back on track, like with my glasses. I lost 'em, and they helped me get new ones."
As for later, Christmas night, Freeman says, "I'm going to a 12-step meeting at Home Quest, downtown, 1010 Broadway."
"My name is Jim Roberts," he says. Like Victor Freeman, Roberts is from Las Vegas. He is 53 and "writing a novel. I've written and published one [Bancroft Press] already. It didn't go anywhere. Anyway, that's been my Christmas so far. I've spent it writing at Balboa Park. It's a mystery/suspense along the lines of a James Patterson novel."
Set in San Diego?
"Yeah, it's set in Saint Vincent's: Murder in the Shelter."
"Who did it?"
"You know better than that."
A seemingly late-middle-aged couple, both thin, weathered, the man visibly in need of dental work, the woman with jet-black hair nearly to her waist, possibly a wig, if not, then dyed, are waiting for the Blue Line train. She wears a black leather motorcycle-type jacket; he wears a similar jacket, only brown, and, like him, weathered. "We been at Vinnie's and tryin' to get inta the tent and..."
"He don't wanna know that," she interrupts the man, whose name is Billy, aged 50. "He just wants ta know what we done for Christmas." Both June and Billy have vaguely Southern accents, but to my ear they could be from Florida or Oklahoma, or southern Illinois, for that matter.
"Well, I don't know. Then you tell him."
"Is this a bad time?" I ask.
"We're just gettin' back together."
"Well, that's an upbeat, Christmas thing," I say, and think: O. Henry was right, there's a short story on every street corner, even in San Diego. Here we have "The Gift of the Magi." I'm guessing Billy sold their crack pipe to buy crack, and she sold the last of the crack to buy a new pipe for Billy. I'm hating myself. It's getting cold.
"We been separated," June says.
"And now you're back together for Christmas."
"More or less." June says she's 61 and from the San Joaquin Valley. Billy was born and raised in Texas, but "I've spent about 20 years in California, 10 in San Diego here."
As for plans for Christmas dinner, Billy begins to speak, and June cuts him off, "We're not doin' nothin'. We're just goin' to Denny's, and then we gotta get ready for work. I work out of La Jolla, out of Green's Hospital."
Billy senses his turn. "I'm with Labor Ready, you know? I'm lookin' for a full-time job."
On the whole, they would rate their Christmas how?
"I'd give it an eight," June supplies. "It wasn't that bad except for the movin'. You know, him movin' into my hotel room."
"We had better," Billy equivocates. "Christmas is my favorite holiday, and Thanksgiving and so on. Thanksgivin' we had dinner. I spent the day with Junie. I was doin' some construction work over ta El Cajon, so I came downtown to be with her."
Have they known each other long?
"Twenty-somethin' years," says June. "Married, goin' on ten."
Sonia Leahy is 41 and a kennel supervisor at Best Friends in Clairemont. "I feed them, I take them out, I do playtime, and I do cuddletime. I clean their kennels and make sure their kennels are sanitary. I treat 'em as if they were my own." She is wearing a Santa hat and reading an Anne Rice novel about witches. "We have 42 Best Friends across the country." Leahy speaks with pride, as an owner, but she is not.
"I'm on my way home. I've been working some extra shifts because I was needed. I'm in recovery. I've got seven months clean. I'm going home to spend time with my cats, write in my journal, and later go to a meeting. I don't have any family out here, so..." Leahy is from Virginia and Maryland. "I came out here 15 years ago for a six-week vacation and never left."