odd characters

A little before Christmas, 2000. I was waiting, around 1 AM, at the 149th Street/Grand Concourse subway station for the fourth in a series of five trains I had to take to get back to my aunt's house in the Bronx. Due to some weird scheduling, there was a crowd of people waiting -- you'd figure that late on a weeknight, there wouldn't be an atmosphere reminiscent of rush hour, but there was. On the other side of the tracks, there were a relative handful of people; most of them were rail-maintenance people, probably headed to the 125th Street station.

One non-subway employee comes down the stairs on the opposite side (this is at the bottom level, where you catch the 2 or the 5), walks a few steps on the platform, then stands, waiting for his train. I fumble in my laptop bag, looking for my watch, then a loud thwack jolts my attention back to the opposite platform. A large garbage bag full of stuff had landed a couple of feet (or less) away from the guy who'd just come down the stairs. A few more seconds later, a large black man descends that stairway, looking like a Caribbean Santa Claus -- t-shirt, shorts, flip-flops, a matted afro with some sign of dreadlocks. Santa looked like he'd just come in from the beach -- never mind that it was probably 30° in the real world. He let out a small, jolly chuckle, grabbed his garbage bag, and went on his merry way down the platform, leaving the pissed glare of his near-victim behind.

Santa was much too large to confront in this matter.

And to all a good fr^H^Hnight.

The Very Reverend Jack Shearer, Dean of St. Anne's Cathedral, Belfast was the best known and longest serving "Black Santa".

Every year during the busiest week of Christmas shopping in the city, he sat outside his church all day to collect money for Third World projects and local charities. He wore his traditional black gloves, cloak, and balaclava, (from whence his nickname presumably comes), to keep out the bitter cold of a northern December. 2001 was to be his final year in the position, and he died in January 2002. (A video of the news coverage of his death is available here). However, this aspect of the dean's duties are now part of the official job description for the post, so the tradition has outlasted Shearer's involvement, as it outlasted its founder Dean Samuel Crooks.

Over the years, Black Santa has become a popular and recognisable figure on the local TV news as he expresses his surprise and delight at the vast amounts of cash coming in- especially from people with little to give. People passing St. Anne's in 2001 contributed a total of about £400,000. Most in small amounts, but a few donations of several hundred pounds have been noted. The largest amount contributed in one go was £30,000, wrapped in a plastic bag and dropped into the Dean's collecting barrel. The record total was in 2004, when £1.5m was raised by Dean Houston McKelvey, all of it going to help the Indian Ocean tsunami survivors.

Donations can be made by cheque payable to "Sitout for Charities" Belfast Cathedral, FREEPOST, BEL 3881, Belfast, BT1 2BR. See www.belfastcathedral.com for details.

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