He stands there, in front of the Wal-Mart on Flatbush — you know, the one with the Popeye's and the Pollo Tropical — swinging his arm an inch from dislocation.
Even from a seasonably Siberian parking spot, the man by the Salvation Army kettle makes an impression.
Doesn't matter if you're not in a particularly festive mood; if all you really want to do is get in and out of the claustrophobic Hartford store as quickly as possible.
Or if any distraction, even a contagiously cheery bell ringer, stands between you and the end of that endless "To Do" list.
By the time you get close enough to the man whose head looks as if it's about to be swallowed whole by his oversized blue knit cap, it's near impossible to scoot by without taking notice.
"Merry Christmas," he shouts into the parking lot. "Merry Christmas. ..."
"And a Happy New Year," he sings.
Oh, people try to avert their eyes — too cool, too broke or too rushed to stop. But few succeed.
Not the tough guys whose hardened masks soften with a mumbled Merry Christmas.
Not the strapped shopper who looks down at her handful of change, once, then twice, until finally she drops the coins into the kettle.
"It's all I have," she said. "But it's yours."
And definitely not the woman whose chilly demeanor rivals the frigid temperature.
"You'd gladden anyone's heart," she says, stuffing a few dollar bills into the kettle. "Even Scrooge's."
Now that one, that one made Zebedee McNeil laugh because as much as he welcomes the donations — he's looking to beat last year's collections — it's these interactions that keep him on the frozen sidewalk swinging that brass bell hard as can be.
"Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Have a blessed night."
Look, he gets that people are hunkered down and wallowing in what is now a universal case of the woe-is-me's.
"But that kind of attitude," he says, "don't do anybody any good."
He should know. The man's frequented so many of Hartford's shelters and food pantries and down-and-out outposts that he can tell you where to get the best food: Open Hearth. "They feed you like a king," he says. The best secondhand clothes: "Mercy House, hands down."
Even the best welcome: "Salvation Army," he says, without hesitation. Hey, he's no fool.
But somewhere along the line, the man named after a believer started doing a little believing of his own — mostly in himself. He admitted that maybe he was making much of his own bad luck. He laid off the booze, he says. He started keeping a journal so that when he re-connects with his two daughters, they can see right there in black and white that he thought of them every day.
And he's working toward leaving the shelter, welcoming as it is, and getting an apartment where one day they could live together.
His plan is to be at the Salvation Army today, enjoying a hot meal, good company and then later, a phone call to his daughters to wish them a Merry Christmas and to tell them that next year's going to be better than the last.
Sounds like a pretty good way to spend the day.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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