Ritual Confessions

February 13, 2008

Christmas at Covenant House

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 3:09 am

On Christmas Day of 2000, I was working at Covenant House, a diocese-run shelter for homeless and runaway teens just off the West Side Highway. It was a brand-new job, and I was beginning it during a difficult time in my life. I had just broken off an engagement with a producer from Los Angeles, someone who had hurt and betrayed me many times. After I left him, he flew to New York City, proposed at the Parker Meridian Hotel and put a diamond ring on my hand. But the damage had been done. During the weeks that followed our engagement, I realized I would never trust him again and that I hated him more than I loved him. So I returned the ring, cancelled my plans to move to L.A., and got a job at Covenant House.

While the holiday season can be hard in the wake of such a decision, I have an irrepressible love of holidays, all holidays; I will seize upon any reason to celebrate. For many years during that phase of my life, I baked gingerbread men and gingerbread Christmas trees every holiday season and decorated them with a meticulousness that Martha Stewart would be hard-pressed to match. Even the year I was living with the circus, which held its holiday season shows at Lincoln Center, I went to Brooklyn on my day off to bake them at my aunt’s and uncle’s house in Sheepshead Bay. (Permission for this activity had been granted by said aunt. My raving Zionist uncle walked in while I was decorating the gingerbread men and nearly had a meltdown.

“What… are… you… doing?” he demanded.

“They’re Maccabee men, Harvey!” I said.)

But I digress. The point is that a lot of effort went into these cookies and here it must be admitted that it wasn’t always easy to find satisfying recipients. Men didn’t really care about the dazzling detail of my cookie craftmanship: the silver-confectionary-ball-buttons, the suspenders created from painstakingly arranged sprinkles, the mini M&M belt buckles and shoes, the expressive faces created from slivers and bits of candy. An entire gingerbread man would disappear with one snap of their greedy jaws without much aesthetic appreciation beforehand. Women got the terminal cuteness and display of skill, but they usually didn’t want the calories.

But finally, with this job at Covenant House, I felt I’d found my target consumers. Homeless and runaway teens would be neither worried about their waistlines nor indifferent to an obvious labor of love. I was certain that, generally speaking, home-baked cookies had not been a staple of their lives. That Christmas Eve, I outdid (and thoroughly exhausted) myself. I spent hours and hours and hours and hours baking the cookies, mixing several different deeply-colored, beautiful shades of icing, and applying about fifteen different kinds of edible decorations to dozens of gingerbread cookies. Shreds of coconut made lovely layers of snow on the gingerbread trees. The other candies made sparkling ornaments. On the gingerbread men I created endless variations of faces and clothing. Once the cookies were dry, I stacked them in clean white boxes with precisely-cut rectangles of waxed paper separating each layer.

The next morning, as I left my apartment before dawn, the bus was just pulling away from the corner opposite my building. On all other days the buses came every few minutes, but I knew that on Christmas morning they would be few and far between. I began running down the icy sidewalk to catch it and within a few steps, almost before I was even aware that I’d tripped, I could feel myself falling. My boxes went flying. The lids were dislodged upon impact; the cookies broke and scattered on the cement. I looked up to see the dismembered, brightly-colored bits of them all over the block.

I sat there in the dark on the frozen pavement of Avenue D and cried like a child as the back of the bus receded down the street. I knew there wouldn’t be another bus for a long time. For a while I actually tried to salvage the cookies, though this was patently insane and not an option on any level and of course I was aware of that even as I was doing it. Finally I crossed the street to the bus kiosk and kept crying. It was a bitterly cold morning and nearly an hour passed without another bus. I was going to be late if I didn’t take a cab, and taking cabs on a social worker’s salary was a very painful proposition (though one I was finally forced to accept). In the back of the taxi, I continued to cry all the way to work. I wasn’t sure I could pull myself together before it was time to start my shift.

Eight years have passed since this happened, and yet telling the story still brings on a deep pang of remembered agony. I will never look back on that morning and laugh.

Anyway, I got to work and went into the building. The first order of the day at this Catholic shelter was a Christmas service. Some choir was there to perform a charity concert for the kids, then a priest delivered a lengthy sermon. Finally, everyone repaired to the cafeteria where there was to be a special breakfast.

After I’d filled my tray, I stood at the threshold of the dining area and saw, among the many tables, a teenaged boy eating by himself. The sight was unsettling, because I considered it my job to join him and to try to make conversation with him. And what could be more daunting than an undertaking like that? Who is more impenetrable, unreachable, and inherently contemptuous of adults than adolescent males? Even the well-adjusted ones without serious issues, the ones who love you deep down (or at least, loved you wildly for the first twelve years of their lives) have nothing to say to you. And yet. For the ones who have don’t have anything or anyone, I didn’t think it got much worse than Christmas morning.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” I asked.

The boy — I’ll call him J.D. since those were his initials — shook his head mutely as I took the seat to his right. He was medium height and slight of build, with dark hair that fell in front of his eyes and a liquid black gaze.

“I’m impressed with the breakfast this morning,” I said. “This is the first time I’ve seen scones here.”

He said nothing.

“What did you think of the service?” I asked.

“S’okay,” he mumbled.

“The priest seemed nice,” I said, a little desperately.


We sat there another moment in silence. I felt worse than useless. I had no idea how to talk to this kid. But I didn’t think I could stand to listen to myself make any more small talk. “Look,” I said finally. “I know Christmas can be a tough day. It’s a tough day for me too.”

For the first time, he raised his head and looked at me. His eyes were wide and startled. “It is?”

“Yes. I mean, I’m grateful that I’m Jewish and it’s not really my holiday. But still, if you live in this country, you can’t get away from it.”

“Why is it hard for you?” he wanted to know.

“Well, all the catalogues and ads are full of happy families in their beautiful houses, all together and cozy with snow sparkling outside… and if your life doesn’t look like that, it’s easy to feel like something’s wrong with you.”

He nodded.

“Besides,” I added, “I just broke up with someone. So all the emphasis on togetherness makes me feel especially sad and alone right now.”

He started to talk then. He told me his own story. He was from a hick town where he had been ostracized and persecuted, and his parents had ultimately kicked him out of the house, for being gay. He had come to New York City on a Greyhound Bus, to exercise his sexual preference and to pursue music. He’d had some bad experiences here in the city, but going home wasn’t an option.

We finished breakfast and went back to the now-deserted shelter chapel, where he played the piano and sang a few of his songs for me. I was enthralled by his works-in-progress and told him so. He visibly brightened and began talking about his goal of making a demo.

Before the week was over, I’d contacted a friend who rented studio space to musicians. He agreed to donate a few hours to J.D. so the boy could record some of his songs.

I was fired not long thereafter; the shelter’s administrators summoned me to their headquarters and told me, “It has come to our attention that you’ve written a book whose values are not in keeping with Covenant House principles.” J.D. and I stayed in contact for a couple of months, then eventually lost touch. I hope he found his way to a good place.



  1. I remember your telling me about the cookies … I wonder why it is that certain kinds of comparatively small tragedies have such dreadful resonance? I say “comparatively small” because nobody was seriously injured, nobody died; no emotional pain was deliberately inflicted by an ill-intentioned person.

    Perhaps it is the randomness of these things that is so painful. In a strange way, maybe it would have been easier to accept some Christmas-hating guy walking up and deliberately smashing your cookies than to feel that an indifferent bit of Fate prevented your giving what you so deeply wanted to give.

    Comment by davidrochester — February 13, 2008 @ 5:10 am

  2. When you put so much of yourself into a thing it’s hearbreaking, when it doesn’t live out the destiny you envisioned for it. Of course, you’ll never laugh about it.

    Comment by Shawn W — February 13, 2008 @ 5:23 am

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