It’s odd how the snow always seems so white and pure on Christmas Eve. The snowflakes have a warm dampness. The streets become empty toward 4pm or so. Akron quiets down as most people anticipate the holiday festivities. Some are breathing relief after weeks of running and chasing yuletide dreams.
But for me, this Christmas Eve is like none before. In all my years of ill existence, self-loathing and alcohol-consumed delusions, here I am in this moment: Standing on East Market Street with no place to go, nowhere to be and only the clothes on my back. No friends to confide in, no place to call home and no future.
I am spending most of my nights at a homeless shelter. I receive meal, a shower and a bunk to sleep in at night. Other times, often, I am too drunk to stay at the shelter. So, I walk the streets, sleeping a few hours in bushes outside the shelter or in bus stops.
On Christmas Eve day, I had panhandled with a sign at the off-ramp by Perkins Street. My only goal that day was to keep my hands from shaking — not from the cold, but from my alcoholism. I had planned on going to the shelter to eat, shower and sleep. But apparently, someone had mentioned that my cologne was rather strong.
The house manager gave me a breathalyzer when I came back from dinner. My BAC was 2.6. I walked out the doors, realizing this was going to be a very long Christmas Eve.
On my walk down East Market, I begin to notice the snowflakes. Then I realize that, by this time, the snow is wet and bone-chilling cold. My first thought is to keep walking to stay warm. Plus, I need to get to the Circle K to load up on some 24-ounce cans of “Christmas cheer.” My shakes are becoming apparent.
My parka is becoming damp. As I reach the convenience store, I pull $8 and some change from my pocket. There is some empty, forlorn relief knowing that I have my “medicine.” My night stroll is now in gear: Alcohol, memories and existing in my own mind with a broken spirit.
I walk up and down East Market. The sky looks like an empty gray blanket, except for a few stars. I duck in and out of doorways. I have been jumped before, off a couple of the side streets, in the past. I sneak behind a church just to get a full beer in me. I know that if I do, my heart will stop pounding, my hands will stop shaking and I might be able to focus.
As a few hours pass, I keep walking on East Market and South Arlington, thinking with every footstep about how I ended up here. Remembering holidays past. My mother and father’s conflicting moods. My son’s excitement on Christmas. His inquisitiveness about Santa. His gratitude.
I become tired and I need to sit down. It’s between 3am and 4am when I slip behind a convenience store. I knew the area well enough to know I can rest behind the store without much chance of trouble.
Cardboard on the concrete under the awning. It’s cold but dry nonetheless. It takes me a moment to settle in and pull some more cardboard over me. That is my bed this holiday. Luckily the wind is light. Despite the circumstances, I fall asleep almost immediately.
I sleep hard and awake to a motion — either a rat or raccoon, I suspect, scurrying to the dumpster. I try to get to my feet. My legs do not cooperate and I fall back down twice. I am shaking from the cold, the damp and the lack of alcohol.
Getting one knee on the ground and both hands on the wall, I push myself to stand. I have one beer left, and now that I need it, I can’t open it with my trembling hands. I get the best grip I can and open it with my teeth.
I know I can get to the ramp and panhandle with the first glint of sunlight. My body is pained, aching and worn. The booze will keep me together for a few hours. At around 9:30am I take a break from panhandling and rummage through my parka to find some change. I walk to the pay phone, put the change in and cross my fingers. The phone rings a few times and finally I hear a voice say, “Hello?”
I smile as I speak into the receiver, “MERRY CHRISTMAS, SIS! How’s it going?”
I will never forget that Christmas. I think of things I used to take for granted. Though it’s been nine years, it feels like yesterday.
// BIO: Clyde Alan Hensley grew up in Cuyahoga Falls. Today, he works as a musician. But on Christmas Eve in 2009, he was homeless, living in a tent near Fountain Street. On Oct. 6, 2010, after a 10-day detox, he was brought to The Salvation Army ARC and has been sober since.