There are roughly five of us working frantically in a small house in Port Richmond. It is Christmas Day 2022. Victor and his mom are in the kitchen. They are making bologna and cheese sandwiches on white bread. Victor’s mom spreads an ingenious spread of mustard and mayo on each slice of bread. I say “ingenious” because the mix is so cleverly concocted that even if someone hated mustard or mayo they would not know what kind of spread was on the bread.
Georgia, the ringleader of this culinary assembly line, walks from the kitchen to where Mike the photographer and I pack dollar-store plastic with containers of juice, cookies, candy canes, and a travel size soft box of tissues. Georgia brings out the sandwiches from the kitchen in sealed Ziploc bags along with shelled hard-boiled eggs in separate bags. Mike and I add these items to each bag and then heave the completed bag near the front door.
The assembly line continues for well over an hour.
I cannot believe that Georgia boiled 100 eggs and then shelled each egg individually before sealing them in small bags. Patience and tenacity like this doesn’t come along everyday.
Our project has no name but nobody seems to mind. At one point we make up project names like egg, bologna and cheese angels or the Bond Bread Sandwich Brigade.
The word “angels,” we decide, doesn’t describe us in the least. This project without a name is probably a one-shot deal after all, so we decide to just refer to it as Distributing Christmas Bologna to the Homeless. The last thing on our minds is to take the project too seriously and to have our good intentions turn into just another fat, bloated non-profit.
Georgia’s assembly line continues to hum along as the number of full dollar-store bags piles up in front of her front door.
The next phase of the project is moving the bags into Georgia’s car, as well as the several boxes she’s filled with socks, gloves and hats, all purchased by Georgia from local thrift stores.
The plan is to drive to Kensington and Allegheny, park the car, and begin distributing the bags to the homeless. With roughly one hundred bags, we don’t know how long the distribution will take.
When we arrive at K and A, the scene is in full swing.
Anyone who knows that famous intersection is familiar with that scene: a zombie village of strung-out individuals. Some lie on stoops while others act out in spasmodic jerks or walk in circles, their bodies bent at the waist. The sellers of these waist-bending drugs stand off to the side, their eyes focused on potential buyers.
But it’s Christmas Day and things seem a little less drastic.
I ask myself: why are we doing this? These people will consume their little care packages and then go back to their syringes. On December 26, many of them won’t even remember that we were here. Many who take the care packages might also be people we wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.
According to a fifth century saint, St. John Chrysostom, that shouldn’t matter.
The saint advises:
“Need alone is the poor man’s worthiness . . .”
“We do not provide for the manners, but for the man.”
“We show mercy on him not because of his virtue but because of his misfortune, in order that we ourselves may receive from the Master His great mercy . . .”
Saint John Chrysostom also hints that, in the end, none of us are truly worthy.
On the street, a church group has already set up long tables that offer a bread and meatball buffet. The smell of red tomato paste mixes with the beat of a type of music I can’t classify but which makes me want to dance. Some of the homeless do appear to be dancing. The servers at the long tables wear Santa hats. The weather is overcast but not terrifically cold. It’s Christmas day, so the street is pretty much all homeless people with not a cop in sight.
There are actually too many homeless to count. This is K and A’s version of a street fair in Northern Liberties where dressed-in-black millennial hipsters do nothing but study their iPhones and repeat the word ‘so.’
The crowd at K and A is fashion-diverse. Men in faded hand-me-down LL Bean red hunting jackets; women in Soviet-era kerchiefs and faded military coats; young men with tired eyes weighed down by multiple-tiered knapsacks; men in baseball caps and oversized parkas; obvious hoodlum types you wouldn’t trust in a lighted alley; fashion-conscious girls who still think blue hair is chic; old black men who might have once shined shoes in Suburban Station; old toothless white men with pinched, weathered faces.
Regular shoppers and normal passers by don’t seem to be anywhere in sight (who shops at K and A, anymore, after all?) Of course, they are all off somewhere having an early Christmas dinner. There are only homeless people and church people on the streets now. Sometimes traffic slows as curious drivers take in the scene.
After Georgia parks the car, we get out and head to the trunk where we begin to take out handfuls of bags. Like wolves zeroing in on prey, a number of homeless head straight for the car. The food bags are given away on a first come, first served basis. Twenty bags disappear in less than five minutes; and we haven’t even crossed the street to where the bulk of the homeless are.
A man with heavily scabbed hands asks Georgia if she has any gloves. “I wear size large,” he says. Georgia scrambles through the boxes and comes up with a pair labeled, Made in Iceland.
An elderly man approaches and asks if he can have some gloves too, but when Georgia asks “What size?” he doesn’t seem to know. Georgia gives him an on-the-spot fitting as she slips a pair of mediums over his fingers, which look like stalks of asparagus. “Thank you,” he says, as he shuffles off to God-knows-where.
A woman and her boyfriend approach — homeless millennials — and ask if there are any scarves. Georgia produces a wide Calvin Klein scarf with spaghetti ends and the woman wraps herself in it as if she was the French writer Colette about to stroll along the Champs Elysees.
We cross the street and position ourselves by the El entrance where I notice a group of suspicious-looking men eyeing us. One of the men refuses Georgia’s offer of a bag and tells her he doesn’t need any clothing. He looks at our group and the church people as interlopers: we are interrupting the normal flow of events at K and A.
“No, we don’t have any clean needles,” I find myself saying to one chap who asks.
Some of the homeless seem familiar to me. A few I’ve seen on Aramingo or Lehigh Avenue near the Wawa and the Fishtown Crossing Shopping Center. I recognize a regular panhandler on the El: a guy about 29 who once told me that on a good day he can make as much as a hundred dollars.
Ask and you shall receive.
Victor, Georgia’s grandson, who disappeared with his bags down another street, runs up and says that we need to take our bags to the Kensington Avenue side where there is a very large homeless encampment.
Encampment isn’t the word. Turning the corner onto Kensington Avenue I see a tribal community that stretches along in front of storefronts as far as the eye can see. Blankets laid out like rugs give the area the feel of a Middle Eastern market only here the occupants have nothing to sell. Some of the homeless sit on blankets in a Transcendental-like pose while others sleep curled up next to knapsacks or make drug deals with friends.
As we walk among the settlement many hands reach out for bags. One guy asks me to wait until he finishes shooting up before I hand him his bologna and cheese sandwich.
The bags disappear quickly; suddenly our group has nothing more to offer.
We head for Georgia’s car, realizing just how many people never got a bag. The fact is, we didn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg. On the way to Georgia’s place for a home cooked turkey Christmas dinner, we spot random homeless people carrying our ribbon-decorated dollar store bags.
Closer to Georgia’s home, I spot a woman sitting on a stoop eating one of her signature hard boiled eggs.
It’s then that I think of a quote (or challenge) from Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” — “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.