Lost at Christmastime

Ordinarily, I don’t have a problem talking to homeless guys. This time, though, I would’ve rather talked to anyone other than the man I saw across the street. But it was a Michigan winter night; no one else was outside. I was in Grand Rapids because no good concerts come to my hometown. Everyone was so disappointed when Foghat got cancelled because of that thunderstorm. The year before that, Starship featuring Mickey Thomas came to town. They’re a band that’s either five or six times removed from Jefferson Airplane, who had a big hit in the 60s with “Somebody to Love.” But Grand Rapids has good concerts, and my brother lived there, so I always had a place to stay if I wanted to come up for a show.


On this particular snowy night, I was up there for a Rosie Thomas (no relation to Mickey that I know of) Christmas concert. My brother’s apartment was maybe two miles away from the show, and it was at the place I’d been to for an Andrew Bird concert the year before, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t get lost on the way there.


I parked where I thought I was supposed to, but a few minutes’ worth of wandering while trying to decipher my brother’s hand-drawn map confirmed I didn’t know where I was. I trudged up and down a few back alleys, the snow mercifully deep enough to cover up whatever I might have been walking on, before I found myself on a busy street. Cars sludged past me, but I couldn’t find anyone to ask for help, until I finally saw him: The guy standing in front of the men’s homeless shelter, looking like he belonged there.


Now, besides the middle-class guilt of asking a man who might not know if he was going to eat lunch tomorrow if he knew where the concert was, I had another problem. That problem was that the concert was at this renovated historical building where women used to meet to make quilts and drink tea and talk about books. A place called The Ladies’ Literary Club.


I had a bunch of scenarios running through my head about what might happen if I asked this homeless man where the Ladies Literary Club was, and none of them ended with him politely giving me directions.


“Excuse me, do you know where the Ladies Literary Club is?”


“The what?”


“The Ladies Literary Club.”


“What you sayin’ to me? Did I hear you right? Say that again.”


“The Ladies Literary Club. They do concerts there.”


“I bet that ain’t all they do there, is it? You think I know where that kind of place is? What kind of guy you think I am? Tell you what, I’ll save you a trip. Let’s go in that alley there, and I’ll give you a Ladies Literary Club right here and now. How’s that sound?”


That's how it sounded in my head, but all he said was that he didn’t know where the club was, but he thought there might be an art place or something down the road a ways. It was more than I had to go on before, so I thanked him and went to check out this art place. It was a gallery, not the Ladies Literary Club, but I could tell he had pointed me in the right direction. I started seeing people on the sidewalk, people who looked like me, people who belonged at a Rosie Thomas Christmas concert.


Rosie’s an unusual performer. She has a rich, beautiful singing voice, but a squeaky speaking voice, like she overdosed on helium before she hit the stage. She dances like her leg joints don’t all bend the way they’re supposed to. And—this is a big “and”—she opens the show as Sheila Saputo, her back brace-wearing, Leo DiCaprio-obsessed alter ego.


Rosie/Sheila tried out stand up comedy before she became a singer.  


One of her songs is “Alone at Christmastime”:

Christmas come and light the tree
And bring some carolers for me
Don't forget the snowman in the front yard

He needs a wool scarf, and me?

Alone at Christmastime
I'll be here and you'll be on my mind.


 I could tell she didn’t have to dig too deep to write it, and I didn’t have to dig deep to connect with it. I was alone at the concert, but I was alone in a lot of other ways, in a lot of other places. I had been for a while, too, a few years at least. And I didn’t think anyone else knew how that felt, especially not at Christmastime.


Rosie closed the show with a cover of “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” a song unfortunately made famous by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Rosie didn’t use her squeaky voice for the song. She transformed it into a communal sing-along with handwritten cue cards.  And she danced with a stuffed Santa Claus doll. She didn’t have anyone else to dance with, like me, but for a few minutes that night, it didn’t matter.


The snow kept falling all through the concert, and the whole rest of the weekend, too. Enough had piled up on the highway that when I tried to change lanes on the way home, I lost control of my car and plowed into the ditch. I had to pay a tow truck to winch me out, which wasn’t cheap, but even with that, the weekend was worth it.