Most of us picture Thanksgiving as a day spent with friends or family, a meal is prepared, we eat and drink, and enjoy each other’s company. Unfortunately for some that isn’t what the holiday looks like and centers across the US open their doors to the masses to try and create a Thanksgiving similar if not the same. If you’ve ever been to the Santa Monica Civic Center you are aware, at best, it resembles a dolled up cafeteria and going into the Westside Thanksgiving lunch I couldn’t picture how they would turn this gymnasium like center into a warm and welcoming feast.
I imagined a sad attempt that would only remind the people attending how unpleasant this holiday had turned out. But as I walked in I was instantly hit by the energy and happiness in the room, it was lively and colorful, with balloons and banners wishing the crowd a happy holiday. For five hours a band played acoustic versions of pop songs and hundreds of servers circled the floor making the crowd drunk off of sugary sodas and pies.
I ended up volunteering, not because by any means am I a nice person who thinks of others during the holidays, but because I was curious about the event and it was, well, really the only way I could get in. Turns out one of the things you can volunteer for is talking to people. Just sit at an empty seat and chat. A lot of people come to this lunch because they don’t have money, but even more come because they don’t have anyone to celebrate with. You might sit at a table full of five singles that are simply there because they didn’t want to be alone.
So, as flattering as the hairnets and plastic aprons were, I opted for the chatter position. First I sat with a homeless couple with whom I awkwardly tried to make small talk. What do you say to someone who lives in a world you are so embarrassingly far removed from? Well, you talk about the food and how good it is. And then the haircuts and eye exams and flu shots and clothing racks the center is providing. It’s all part of the program. You come wanting a holiday meal and leave with a new prescription, a faux hawk, and some skinny jeans. And the attendees are incredibly thankful for it; the homeless couple had been coming for eight years. Where other homeless programs had failed this succeeded simply by offering comfort, a larger plate and a small jamboree.
After the couple and I parted ways I found myself spending most of the day with a woman in her seventies. She’d been living in LA for twenty five years, had no family, had never married, and hadn’t had turkey the Thanksgiving before. We talked about her church and the Apple store, Wisconsin (where she was from), and how she sometimes had to pinch herself that she lived by the beach. She’d been to the center before for Thanksgiving and almost hadn’t come this year but she was glad she did, she was happy to have the company.
This is why the program is here, for the homeless couple and this lovely woman; they all had a need whether it was a haircut or a flu shot for the coming winter or maybe just someone to talk to while they ate, they found it here in this dressed up middle school auditorium. The folding chairs with colorful balloons and the cover band at the front of the hall, it was a lot of people’s entire Thanksgiving this year and it was one I was lucky to be a part of.
Rebecca Hoobler has lived in Los Angeles for two years now and thinks it’s not too shabby.