How a real-life hobo changed my view of hoboes and who Santa really is.
|An Unexpected Santa|
Escorting fifteen three- and four-year-old children on a field trip to a crowded shopping mall just before Christmas is no small task. I know. I was there. It was 1981, and I was enjoying my second year as a teacher’s aide for Monroe County’s Head Start program. Each year Terri, the teacher I worked with, and I made this trip to Toledo’s Franklin Park Mall to see the decorations, and so the kids (who weren’t afraid and hiding behind us) could sit on Santa’s lap and tell him their greatest toy wishes.
Although the mall was not generally as overwhelming as it is today, back then the crowds of people and the giant decorations still held the power to excite, enthrall, and, yes, frighten. So, that year like many others, we gazed open-mouthed at giant candy canes in traditional red and white glory that lined the halls, the seven-foot nutcrackers who stood like sentinels in department store doorways, snowflakes, tree ornaments. All in unimagined sizes and color combinations. Near the center of the mall there was a motorized train set carrying huge teddy bears, bunnies and dollies around and around on its circular track. In another spot, Mrs. Claus and Santa Claus replicas mechanically waved at passersby.
The toddlers in our care watched wide eyed at all this while clinging to each other or one of us adults. Finally, we had made our way to the center of the mall where Santa and his elves were supposed to be. His red velvet covered chair sat empty. A sign to our left told us that Santa would be back at two-o’clock and something about hungry reindeer. Realizing this gave us an hour wait, Terri and I gathered the children into a circle where she told them Santa was having lunch with his reindeer, and we would see him soon. After this, we herded the children together for another trek through the mall’s Christmas Wonderland.
While stopped in front of a toy store window several minutes later, I remember one of the girls nudging me and whispering, “It’s Santa.” I remember this because my first thought was. “Finally we can get this over with.” Well, of course, at the mere mention of the Christmas One’s name, all of the children had turned expectantly, each whispering and sighing “Santa.” When I turned around I could see nothing for them to be excited about. There was no red-clad bearded one in sight. Before Terri and I could stop them, the children were moving en masse toward an older gentleman standing near the water fountain.
There appeared to be nothing about this man, who was clad in a light blue leisure suit, to warrant their childish attention. Sure, he had a white beard, but that didn’t seem very special. He looked like a grandpa. Then he turned. Suddenly, phrases from The Night Before Christmas came to my mind. “His eyes how they twinkled; His dimples how merry!” This man’s eyes looked just like stars. “His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry.” Ever notice how red someone’s cheeks and nose are when they first come in from the cold? That’s how he looked. And, yes, his hair and beard were as white as snow.
Surrounded by fifteen toddlers and two stunned adults, this man seemed very much at ease. He explained to the kids that his name was Steam Train Maury, not Santa. He knelt down and spoke to each child in turn, accepted hugs and kisses and listened to greatest toy wishes. In the background, we heard bells jingling. It was almost two o’clock and the ‘real’ Santa was coming back from lunch. Maury accepted more hugs as the kids each said their reluctant good-byes. Terri thanked him for his time with the little ones before she began leading them away. I hung back.
“Why do they call you Steam Train Maury?” I asked. He told me he had lived his life as a “professional” hobo, and that’s just what everyone on the hobo trail called him. He was “King of the Hoboes” and was at the mall passing out autographs. He asked me if I would like his autograph and when I said yes, he pulled out a card with his picture on it. I remember him asking me my name and what I wanted him to write on that card. Well, I wanted his life story or to know what it was like to be a hobo, but I settled for “To my friend.”
As I stood there holding the card with Maury’s likeness on it, I felt cheated almost. I wanted to know about hopping trains, carrying all of your worldly possessions on your back, singing and eating around a campfire, seeing the world through someone else’s backyard. Instead, the “King of the Hoboes” goes around passing out his autograph in city malls. Somehow, it just didn’t fit.
When I looked up, Maury was gone. I shrugged. Then I remembered the kids’ smiling faces as they went to him with “Santa” on their lips. The gift of time he gave so freely as he listened to each and every one of their toddler pleas, and the patience and gentleness he showed with the children would be long remembered, as would this “King of the Hoboes”, who was truly an unexpected Santa that day.