Monday, November 18, 2013

How Natalie Saved Christmas

Late afternoon, mid-November and I'm sitting in a corner booth at McDonald's with Dan. We had just finished sanding an antique sideboard at his shop and I was the one to suggest a coffee at McDonald's. After not setting foot in the place for over 35 years, I will now drink their coffee on occasion. This is an occasion; I'm depressed.

Depression feels like a vice grip clamping my brain. I've felt it coming on for weeks, have tried to ignore it, but it has closed in. Gloom eclipses my thoughts and days are getting darker. Thank god November coincides; it's always difficult to describe this pain in the spring.

I've suffered from depression all my life. Some of the best comedians have. That's not to say I'm one of the best comedians -- I'm pretty good -- but I'm not great and certainly not the best. I have a melancholic nature and I discovered early the antidote to that is to assume the opposite. I remember as a child sitting in an armchair (it was orange woven fabric ) and numbly staring off. I did that fairly often. It was either that or recite goofy stories I wrote for my classmates.

Today I'm pensive, staring off onto the street, the heavy slate sky matching the concrete side walks. Colours hurt right now. The red AutoWash sign across the street makes me squint. Autumn, time of decay and inevitability. There isn't a minute that goes by that I don't feel a cell die. Today is the Santa Claus parade too. I went last year and felt deliriously happy, swept up in the holiday magic and cheer. This year I feel too low, to inexplicably ashamed to go. I have a sip of coffee and tell myself to be patient, that this internal dread and fear will pass.
I see her in my peripheral vision, tallish, wearing a grey hoodie. She is nearing.
"Do you have any money? I'm hungry."
I glance up. She's standing over me and looking into my eyes. Dan is sitting across from me and she doesn't see him. I don't feel fear, annoyance, repugnance, pity, compassion. I feel nothing. She has asked me a question and all I can do at that moment is be truthful because I'm numb.
"Yes, I have some money. Let's go get something to eat."
"Can I have McNuggets?"
I dig seven dollars and fifty cents out of my wallet.
"I have seven dollars and fifty cents. Let's see what that will buy."
"Can I have a combo?"
"This is all I am going to spend. Let's see what it will buy."
There is a line up at the counter and she steps in front of the queue. I tell her we have to wait our turn.
"How are you today?" I ask.
"I'm fine."
"I wanted to go to the Santa Clause parade today, but, well, I didn't make it," I say.
"Uh huh."
"Have you ever been?"
Her eyes are glazed and fixed. She smells of old wool and body odour. Her hair is close cropped. I'm guessing she is between 30 and 40 years old. She is stooped.
"Are you from Toronto?" I ask.
"I was born in Jamaica."
"Do you have brothers and sisters?"
"I'm an only child."
"Do your parents live in Toronto?"
"My mother is in Mississauga and my father lives in New York City."
"New York City. That is a great place, one of my favourites."
She smiles and she is lovely.
"Where do you live?"
"I'm homeless. I have bipolar and I can't work."
"What's your name?"
"I'm Natalie. What's yours?"
"I'm Carol." I extend my hand. "Nice to meet you Natalie. That is a lovely name."
When it is our turn to order I ask for 10 chicken McNuggets. She asks the cashier for a combo pack and the cashier says no, because I only give her seven-fifty.
I leave Natalie and return to the corner booth and to Dan, who has noticed the police have shut down traffic on Keele. I try not to think about the ridiculousness of living in Toronto these days.
I see Natalie carrying a tray and sitting down at another table.
"Look," says Dan, pointing.
I turn around and face the street. A flat bed truck goes by, giant fairy tale ducks in tow. I hear someone say the float is probably going up to Weston for its Santa Claus parade. Another flat bed truck whizzes with a Smurfs display. I am on this.
"Natalie! Come over here. Come sit with us!" I'm waving at her and she comes over with her tray.
"Look outside!"
Float and float goes by, shiny candy canes, gingerbread people and gingerbread houses, penguins in bow ties, all barrelling down Keele. Natalie offers Dan a McNugget.
"That one is pretty," she says of the gingerbread float.
I'm smiling now, perked by the crazed parade.
"Hey, here come the reindeer!"
We see the big finale shoot by, the twelve reindeer, the north pole workshop and Santa's sleigh. Three people not Santa are sitting in the sleigh. People on the side walk have all stopped to watch this. They wave anyway.
Natalie has finished her McNuggets. "I have to go now," she says.
"Where are you going?"
"I have to go back to the shelter now. Thanks for the McNuggets."

And then she hugs me.

For that instance, my cells stop dying. She hugs me and I feel alive. She shuffles away and out the door.
My eyes meet Dan's. We don't say anything. We're both tearing up. Natalie, for those few moments, has transformed me. She has blessed me. There is no other way to describe it.
"There needs to be more housing for people," Dan says.
"Yes." Grateful, I let the tears flow and lift my coffee cup and touch his.  "Merry Christmas, Natalie."