Hard times spark gifts of the heart

Posted Dec. 17, 2009, at 8:16 p.m.

Some days it feels like crime and poverty are on every corner in Baltimore. With the winter solstice approaching along with the holidays, the colder realities of this city have never appeared starker. The numbers of homeless families — not just individuals — are higher than ever. Talk of arrests and robberies weaves through conversations in the street and on the bus. The unemployed who once waited on Broadway for possible day labor now huddle around the bank, the 7-Eleven, and the laundromat, trying to find some shelter from the cold.

To make matters worse, on the first of December, the city’s own mayor was convicted by a Baltimore jury of embezzlement — taking gift cards intended for the needy. Mayor Sheila Dixon is someone who has been considered a champion of the people; now, her drawn-out trial and investigation have shaken the inhabitants of Baltimore to the core. Whether she should now leave her post as mayor is being hotly contested across the city.

It’s hard not to feel a little down and out when the woman at the helm is on the wrong side of the law in hard times.

When I get on the Metro in the morning, I can’t help but notice the signs of urban decay: the boarded-up buildings, the people without coats. Yet, for all of the poverty I see, I see good things, good deeds and good people, and an adaptation to hard times that speaks to the resilience of this city.

“Spare change for coffee or tea?”

An old woman with a bright, beautiful smile — the kind of smile that can’t be faked — looks into the face of each person she asks. The men standing next to me dig money out of their pockets. “Sure thing, sister,” a gruff, burly man says to her. “Somethin’ to keep you on your way.” His suddenly gentle tone, a quick shift from the low rumble of the banter he had been exchanging with his buddies, makes me look up in surprise.

Conversation drifts around me in the subway car as the passengers head north and west through the city. “You goin’ to work?” one woman asks the guy across from her, a neighbor taking the same train.

“I ain’t got no work, no how. I’m bringing this to my girl,” he said, hefting a paper lunch sack in one hand.

“Lord reward you,” she replies with a smile. “She’ll like that.”

“Where are you headed?” another man asks a friend in the seat across from him.

“They need some furniture moved down at Morrison’s. A good day’s work. I’ve gotta go home and change before I head down there.”

The questions old acquaintances ask each other when they cross paths have changed. It’s no longer what work you do that matters, but whether you have work at all; for those who do not, it’s getting less and less shameful to be unemployed. In a season marked by displays of materialism it seems that this year, gifts of time and favors rather than objects are not only acceptable, they’re becoming preferred over the kinds of tokens exchanged in better times.

“My sister has been out of work for a few months,” a friend told me. “She said she couldn’t get us nothin’ for Christmas this year, but she volunteered to baby-sit for my husband and me for three whole Friday nights in a row. Imagine! I told her that’s a better gift than anything she could buy at the store.”

Hard times may seem like the worst times for the holidays. But the more I look around this December, the more it seems that hard times — rather than prosperity — bring out the best and most genuine displays of generosity. With less to give each other, we’re reaching out with our own hands — and finding that that’s more than enough.

“Come eat dinner with us tonight,” one man told another before they parted ways on the train platform. “Why, we’ve got so much food, it’ll go bad if you don’t come. Please. Bring your kids.”

“Maybe I will,” said the other man, slowly, with gratitude shining in his eyes. “I might just do that.”

Times are tough for Baltimore right now, yet as many reasons as there are to feel low, people seem to be making lemonade out of lemons this month. And in the process, they’re bringing more meaning to the holidays than I have seen in a long time.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at meg@margaret-adams.com

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