In Part I of my story, I wrote of arriving in New Mexico with my wife Carol and my one-year-old son Jake, and there discovering the delights of Christmas in the Land of Enchantment. At the time, I was writing a book about New Mexico, one in which I took on many of the daunting problems facing New Mexicans and proposed new and sometimes controversial solutions to those problems. One such was homelessness. To deeper understand the issue, with Carol and Jake I spent Christmas Eve at Saint Elizabeth Shelter for the Homeless in Santa Fe. We pick up the story upon our arrival at the shelter. The year was 1991.
St. Elizabeth’s and its guests belie the myths of the homeless shelter. It’s an attractive and dignified place, staffed by skilled professionals under the leadership of its imaginative and caring director, Hank Hughes. Volunteers and donations from concerned Santa Feans keep it afloat. The halls are clean and bright, lined with posters, photographs, and notices of job openings and support group meetings. One hallway leads to the dining room past an alcove containing a library and a television set. The other leads to separate men’s and women’s dormitories. (At another location, St. Elizabeth’s maintains a complex of apartments for families.) Each evening, several dozen sane, sober, hardworking men and women come through the door seeking refuge from the night. It will be temporary refuge only; guests are expected to move on after a few days.
The sun had set by the time Carol, Jake, and I arrived, and the shelter was nearly full. We wandered through the building trying to seem festive and comfortable, without much success on either score. Some guests lay on their bunks reading, napping, or staring at the ceiling. Others drifted up and down the halls, stopping to study the bulletin board or to engage friends in conversation. Half a dozen people lounged on sofas in the alcove. In the kitchen a volunteer crew readied a special Christmas Eve supper. The food, like much of what is served year-round at St. Elizabeth’s, had been donated by several Santa Fe restaurateurs.
Not long after arriving, I realized that something seemed to be missing: I had expected the atmosphere to be more frenetic. Perhaps I imagined rude, enraged, or deranged guests screaming or shoving each other in the hallways.
On the contrary, the shelter’s most striking characteristic was its tranquility. No peals of laughter echoed up and down the halls, no shouts greeted new arrivals at the door. The guests were quiet and subdued—partly from exhaustion, partly from melancholy, I guessed, neither out of place under the circumstances.
Observing those around me and trying to imagine what had brought them there that night, I thought of Coronado and his mistaken belief that he would find the Seven Cities of Cibola, a place that did not even exist. Like him, the explorers of St. Elizabeth’s had been tricked into believing that by proceeding diligently in a steadfast direction, they would reach their destinations—homes, jobs, financial success. The trick was that there were not enough of any of these to go around. Match up all the dwellings in America with people who have the means to rent or purchase them, and thousands of Americans will still be sleeping in the streets. Fill every available job from the ranks of the unemployed, and millions will still be jobless. Divide the wealth of the nation among all our citizens, and so long as some are millionaires, others will necessarily be paupers. It isn’t that the guests at St. Elizabeth’s were stupid or lazy or unworthy, though some of them may have been that; it’s simply that even if all of them plus everyone else in the United States were bright, industrious, and eminently worthy, some would still be left out in the cold. In this relentless game of musical chairs, some of the players are practical, some are clever and quick, some are ruthless, some are wise. Some are lucky. And when the music stops, some, no matter what their attributes, will not find a place to sit down. I felt honored to be in the august company of a few of the latter, who persevered despite their circumstances.
My feeling of admiration grew during dinner as I spoke with some of the guests. Kathy McKesson is an articulate, animated woman with long brown curls and a brandy-smooth Louisiana drawl. A year before, after leaving a battered woman’s shelter in Texas, she found herself in “a nowhere situation.” With little money and no car, she worked her way at one job after another to Santa Fe—“riding buses, praying a lot.” She hoped that in fabulous Santa Fe she would find friends, a good job, a new beginning.
So far she had found none of it. But like everyone I spoke with that evening, Kathy McKesson had a job: she worked at Taco Bell earning fast-food wages. At Taco Bell she would earn in a year what the CEOs of several American corporations earn in an hour, what pitcher Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers earned for every pitch he threw in 2017. If she could save the several thousand dollars she would need to move into an apartment, which she could not, she would see 90 percent of her wages eaten up by rent and utilities. It seemed clear that Kathy McKesson would not be staying long in Santa Fe.
Nor would the others with whom I spoke. Martin Kelleher is a short, stocky man with a neat mustache and a sly smile. He is a writer of short stories, a fancier of the works of Gabriel García Márquez. For the past month Kelleher had played Santa Claus at Santa Fe’s Villa Linda Mall. In the morning, his employment finished, he would climb into his truck and head for Seattle, where he had friends and, he thought, the prospect of a job. Martin Kelleher was not angry over the irony of a homeless Santa Claus but bemused by it. He had profited from the experience, he said, for it had given him the idea for a new story. In Kelleher’s story, God will play Santa Claus and humans will sit on His knee asking for chocolates and eternal life.
Nor would the dark, intense young man who calls himself Christian Joe, a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army, be staying. Nor would Patrick Cleland, a Vietnam veteran, nor Anna Spence, a frightened, bewildered woman of sixty who arrived just as my family and I were about to depart, and who, in a hollow voice, told the receptionist that she needed a safe place to sleep. Surely they would not be long in Santa Fe, a city like every city in America, with a look and a feel—a style—that seem to define it and drive it and invest it with meaning and purpose, but which under scrutiny reveals a shattered core flying apart like fragments of an exploding star. On this night, at least, there was unity among the most distant and fastest-flying of the particles, a brief coming together into incandescence. And on dark Alarid Street, a light as bright as a million farolitos—a light of courage, resilience, and hope—shone at Number 804.
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The power of the mountains, cold and juniper-spiced, drifted down from the Sangre de Cristos and settled over the streets and houses of Santa Fe. In the magic of the evening, Carol, Jake, and I slipped and slid our way along Washington Street. Dangling at his mother’s hand, my son took on his first icy sidewalk like a new ride at the playground. St. Elizabeth’s was behind us, its guests safe for another night. We were out to enjoy the evening and, just as important, to put distance between ourselves and the shelter as rapidly as possible, the faster to assure ourselves that we had stepped back to our side of the line.
As we rounded a corner and entered the old plaza, a dream of perfect Christmas opened before our eyes. Kids skated in the street. Blithe walkers, frosty breath at their lips, strolled arm-in-arm under the porticos. Shop windows glowed with displays of toys, canned hams, and crisp new clothes. We slipped in among the strollers, joined them as though we were all one family. I found myself smiling and wishing well to strangers who caught my eye. The chill night, the antiquity of the surroundings, the passersby bundled so fastidiously—it was the wrong time and place, but I couldn’t help thinking of Dickens. I half expected to see Bob Cratchit hurrying by with a turkey under his arm.
In the park at the center of the plaza, an unearthly radiance rose up, the aurora of a thousand farolitos. We crossed the street and entered the brightness, gathering its warmth and its strength.
It was quiet there, and beautiful. We walked slowly among the candles, taking in the light. It seemed eternal, yet somehow fragile enough to be extinguished with a single breath.
And soon it was too much and we were in our car, driving higher and higher out of the city and the light, up winding streets where old men walked in the shadows, over dark arroyos harboring the sleeping millions, past battered Fords and Chevies where children slept and parents kept watch in the night.
Amid the majestic hills that adorn Santa Fe like a crown we stopped and in a small clearing beside the road stood rapt in the deep silence of Christmas Eve—even Jake, bundled to the teeth against the bitter cold. To the east, Sun Mountain glimmered in snowlight. Above, the sky roiled with the harbingers of an approaching storm.
But to the south over the benighted valley of the Rio Grande the sky was yet clear. It was spangled in stars. They were brighter, sharper, and more immediate than I had ever seen them before. How clear it was to me then that the shelter I had been seeking to understand was much more than a simple clearing by the road, or a homeless refuge on the wrong side of town, or an old city in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Those are but tiny rooms in the only shelter we will ever know, this grand spinning planet we inhabit, one and all, our lifelong refuge from the storm. Here in our hallowed sanctuary we join in the pageant of life and death, cast ourselves as heroes or tyrants, and share in a common fate. Here we take on the monumental task of being human, and in our most solemn decision choose whether to hope or to despair.
The wind freshened, the mountain air coiled tighter around us. In the final moment before I escaped into the warmth of the car I thought of the ones we call the faceless, those stalwart souls who like the lights over Santa Fe burn with an unquenchable inner fire. I looked up and picked out a star, a silvery, blazing Christmas star, and I vowed that it would become the face of them all. From that moment till the end of time, the star will shine on, unmistakable in its meaning.
Whoever gazes up will see it and recognize its countenance. And the stalwart will never be faceless again.
And I gave a name to the star. I called it Thomas of Prairie Dog Town.
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Saint Elizabeth Shelter sign: © 2015 St. Elizabeth Shelter Corporation, http://www.steshelter.org
Homeless Man: Roman Bonnefoy, www.romanceor.net, Wikimedia Commons