Monday, December 8, 2008

Crooked halos & angel tree urchins

I prefer buying Christmas presents for angel tree urchins to buying them for my own little angels, the bratty little ingrates.

With my kids, I actually witness how they react and how little they care for the gifts I buy for them. And when I say I, I mean the ones my wife goes to great pains to shop for, pay for and wrap post-midnight while I’m out watching hockey games with my friends.

They tear through the packages the way Biblical locusts go through once verdant fields of grain. They do not pause. They do not savor. They simply decimate.

I surmise it’s nothing like that with angel tree recipients. Sweet anonymity allows me to project who they are and how they’ll react to my meager gifts.

All I know about him is that he’s 8, wears slim pants, size 10 shirts and likes Sponge Bob and playing with Legos. With that skimpy profile, I’m now free to conjure the scruffy rest of him in my mind.

He’s perfectly poor. He’s the one kid Tiny Tim and the other Cratchit children make fun of when they want to feel better about their own sorry lot. They’re so poor Mom ladles in dirt with the gruel after weekly church service to make it more hearty and Sunday special. The kid always goes out of his way to tell Mom how good it tastes. He roots for the Pittsburgh Steelers and one day hopes his family will be able to afford a cheap transistor radio so he doesn’t have to stand out in the cold with his nose pressed against the glass of the local tavern to see who wins on the bar TV.

His pretty young mother works three jobs -- VA nurse, flag seamstress, and cupcake froster at the old folks home. She solos for the church choir and blushes at the classically trained choir director’s ardent urgings that she try out for American Idol next time Simon Cowell brings the crew to Pittsburgh. She’s just too shy, she demurs.

The father’s a good guy, too. He’s a freelance writer who’s been so beaten down by torrential rejection, editors who carelessly insert commas into his copy, and dodgy payments from deadbeat publishers that he just sits home drinking beer and watching “Dallas” reruns on the Soap Network.

So these are people for whom I can root.

I imagine them at Christmas around the little shrub they lovingly call a tree and handing the boy the gifts I that I hope will make a difference.

Here’s what happens: He opens the package with the little size 8 jeans in them. The family rejoices. Who knew Santa could be so stylish! (Mom and Dad slyly wink at each other). He puts the pants on and the very next day a little girl who’s never noticed him before checks out his more confident 8-year-old swagger. The pair become enduring sweethearts. She’s the granddaughter of a Big Three automaker CEO who’s just transferred all his holdings to her to hide from government snoops while he piously drops his salary to $1.

He tears the paper and pulls out the camo hoodie next. With its extra warmth, the boy now stays up two extra hours each night to study. Scholarships follow.

Then comes the best part. The deluxe box of Sponge Bob Legos! I saw this on the shelf and did a double take on his wish list. Listed one and two were Sponge Bob; Legos. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A two-fer! He begins working the pieces and making grand designs that soon catch the eye of a local architectural firm that specializes in eco-friendly skyscrapers.

He’s soon earning enough that Mom’s able to quit her trio of jobs and take voice lessons. She tries out for American Idol, finishes second, but crabby Cowell quits in outrage over the idiot vote and offers to shepherd her career.

They celebrate by getting Dad a 90-inch HDTV and the complete series box set of every “Dallas” episode featuring Larry Hagman commentary.

One day they all sit around and look back on the Christmas that started it all, the one where the anonymous stranger gave the thoughtful and blessed angel tree gifts. They say a heartfelt prayer asking God reward the soulful stranger.

Of course, nothing like that’s ever happened, even though I’ve been doing the angel tree thing for more than 15 years. I crassly confess I expect by now there’d be some karmic sort of compensation for my selflessness.

But nope.

Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe those angel tree urchins just don’t care about my thoughtful gifts. Maybe, like my own little angels, they just kind of sit there and look around with that “Is-this-all-there-is?” expression.

Maybe angel tree kids are no different or more appreciative than middle class kids.

Lousy little ingrates!

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