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Letter from Santa Clara

“Ex-hackie Santas Winter…Here!”

By Bill Costley

Recently, I was sitting outside an Albertson’s (formerly Lucky) supermarket on a wide, comfortable plastic public bench looking at its deep-blue plaque whose ¾” gold letters said it was “produced from 3,900 recycled Albertson’s (plastic) Grocery Bags” (flanked-left by Albertson’s A/sprout-logo & -right by the 3-continuous-arrows recycling symbol.).

I was [there] listening to the ting-a-ling-a-ling of the Salvation Army hand-bell at the other end — not a silver bell, but a red one, about 2”in dia. — being regularly rung by a large, grey-haired guy not all that much unlike me, in a red nylon Sallie-logo windbreaker, sort of a Norcal Santa-lite.

He told me he normally lives in Portland OR, but comes down each year to San Jose CA for its milder winters, & lives in the Sallies’ hostel for $20/wk while earning min. wage ($6.75/hr) & doing his shifts outside local supermarkets. He said Safeway had just told the Sallies’ Santas to buzz off, so he was quickly relocated to an Albertson’s in Santa Clara (Yellow Pages list 3 there; 13 in neighboring San Jose). After people drop some money in the big red kettle’s small top-hole, he sincerely thanks each one in a bass voice that I find entirely convincing (but I’m a bass-bar. myself). What’s even more convincing is his own story, which, this being the Holiday Season, you should hear, now.

As an undergraduate at Portland State, he was a biz. major, but hung out with the artsy set whose way with words he admired & enjoyed. “After I graduated, I just couldn’t be a cold enough SOB towards people — like most businessmen are — so instead, I got a job driving a cab.” He drove for Portland’s Radio Cab (black & white) for 19 years, then for Broadway (the Yellow franchisee) another 11 years. “The things I saw…I should have written down,” he vaguely reminisced, unaware that I’d soon be doing this to/for him; as a semi-coded hint, I told him that a former student of mine, Andy Kaufman, played a mechanic in a Manhattan cab company on TV; the show was TAXI, you all remember it, I’m sure. But he didn’t.

He cut to the chase by saying that things have gotten worse each year for housing down here, & that his deal with the Salvation Army was the best he could get, ever since Bush2 had cut way back on Section 8 housing vouchers. I told him I’d listened to two people argue about that very thing only a few days ago, one saying that that Section 8 housing should really be reserved for U.S. citizens who deserve it, the other, explaining that the waiting list is already many years long for everyone, anyway. He concurred: “It’s up to 5 years now. How can you wait for that?”

If you’re expecting a “Miracle on 34th St.” (1947) Hollywood-moment, here it is. He told me about a disabled vet whom he helped out by buying him cigarettes regularly, some years ago. Well, years later, that vet has finally won his Workmen’s Comp. case, & was awarded $1400/mo., so adding that to the $800/mo. he gets from his VA benefits, & the worn-out shoe was on the other foot now. “So, would you believe this? He showed up, here, today, to donate $20 to the kettle, & suddenly recognized me, (saying): ‘Hey, aren’t you the guy who helped me out years ago? Well. Here’s $100 I must owe you.’ Here it is.” He slipped the folded C-note (a crisp new “Benjamin”) out of his pocket, & shook his head, saying: “There are some days…when…you…” & I agreed, there were. Today’s one of those days, so I…did what I do best: wrote this. What are you going to do?