The phone rang at four in the afternoon just after I put the egg yolk glaze on the braided bread dough. It was a guy named Bill. He wanted to check the time of the open house.
“At five . . . No, you needn’t bring anything . . . Yes, please, your friends are welcome.” Thank god someone was going to show up.
I didn’t know this Bill, nor his friends, but now at least a couple of people would enjoy my superb hors d’oeuvres and appreciate my style and grace as a hostess. I slid the bread into the oven, poured another glass of wine, and leaned against the counter. I looked at the serving dishes ready for goodies. What was next?
The open house would be the first gathering in our home since we moved to this hellhole of a city in September. I didn’t like Youngstown. A steel town. Certainly not a garden spot. Smokestacks belched dirty clouds of iron ore debris. Street gutters ran streams of rusty water when it rained.
Back in the humidity and stickiness of July, while Ed had his interview with the search committee, I killed time and tried to cool off in the mezzanine cafe of Strouss, the city’s main department store. I looked over the railing at sluggish shoppers moving along the aisles, pawing through piles of tee-shirts, and putting earrings up to the sides of their faces, glancing at themselves sideways with a semi-pout, hoping the earrings might make them look sexy. I feared I was going to live in this god-forsaken place and become one of them. I thought I would die there.
The day before the interview, a member of the search committee had taken us for a drive through the park along the Mahoning River, regarded as one of the more attractive places of the region. It was better than the rest of the city, for sure, but I considered all the sights pure ob-scenery. Having grown up in the beauty of the Adirondack Mountains, I didn’t want this dreadful confluence of ugliness to be my settling-down place.
I knew the search committee would like Ed, and I knew Ed wanted the job. “There’s a lot going for it, El,” he said. “It’s a city church, and the salary is pretty good for someone like me, right out of theological school. Youngstown is a good place to start,” meaning – he’d take the job if offered, and I would have to swallow all the dreams I had about living in a place of beauty.
Ed began his job at the Youngstown Unitarian Church just when a multitude of people needed assistance - spiritually, emotionally, and financially. He signed his contract on “Black Monday” - the very day Youngstown Iron Sheet and Tube, one of the largest steel companies in the world, announced it was shutting down, putting over 5,000 men and women out of work. It was as if an evil force swooped down into the minds and souls of the entire population and dumped everyone’s bucket of happiness and economic survival into the river. And I felt that demonic presence close to home - sneering at my misgivings, trying to orchestrate my demise.
With Ed and our 9-year-old daughter, Katie, I became a full-time member of this deteriorating community. Katie settled quite nicely into Youngstown life, never once complaining about the city. She liked her fourth grade teachers and made friends very quickly in her multi-cultural school. It wasn’t until she showed me her class picture that I learned who was Asian, Mexican, black, or white. She participated in local activities and played with friends after school. For her, Youngstown was a great place to live.
I knew I had to make the best of it, so I registered in a graduate degree program in counseling at Youngstown State University, began taking piano lessons again after a long musical drought, and revived an old lost love of mine - entertaining.
One of the garden spots of Youngstown was, in fact, my new church. The congregation included wonderful people - artists, professors, writers, musicians, and interesting, everyday people. The church seemed to be a respite from the unpleasantness of the city’s decay. And so at Christmastime, Ed and I decided to give them a party.
The dining room table was taking shape. I placed a fresh boxwood centerpiece bejeweled with holly berries and white and red carnations between two silver reindeer with antlered candlestick holders. The table would soon be laden with a cornucopia of sumptuous treats. Poached salmon and lemon slices with sour cream dill sauce. Baked brie en croute with raspberry jam and roasted pecans. Spiral cut honey baked ham and sirloin filet slices for mini-sandwiches on my freshly baked braided egg bread. Miniature spinach and broccoli quiche. Various hard and soft cheeses, stone crackers, kettle roasted potato chips, caramelized onion dip, Chocolate chip cookies, butterscotch brownies, vanilla pound cake with a drizzle of butter icing, cranberry bread and cream cheese. Champagne punch with floating strawberries and circles of pink ice. Special beers and wines. I had plenty.
Guests began arriving a little after five. Soon a low hum of conversation mixed with clinking forks and Gustav Holtz’s, “The Planets” filled the rooms, reminding me that being with friends, especially during the holidays, is a gift, regardless of the hideousness of scenery beyond the door. I stood back and smiled at the sights and sounds - lovely table filled with a colorful array of tasty foods; small groups of people drinking, laughing, celebrating the holidays; sparkling decorations for that special touch of Christmas hospitality. Just right.
That’s when the three strangers came into the house. Two men and a woman. They didn’t knock nor ring the bell. They just opened the door, and with supreme boldness, swept into the room and spread out like they had predetermined where they would park themselves. The shorter of the two men was dressed in a dark brown and white striped suit that fit him like a flour sack. But it was his slick, comb-over hair, parted so closely to his left ear he most likely caught his ear lobe in brush bristles that emphasized his overall peculiarity. He headed for the living room and stood in front of the fireplace – hands groping the air for warmth.
The taller, hulk-like man slunk into the corner of the dining room behind the door and stood there, shoulders hunched, arms dangling in front of him as though he was about to direct a choir. He rested his chin against his chest and gaped at the crowd from under his eyebrows with a dull, menacing glare, like an eagle watching over its prey, ready to pounce. He wore what looked to be rejects from the mismatch bin of a resale shop - oversized white shirt under an ill-fitting grey suit that pulled across his stomach - jacket sleeves ending at his forearms, shirt sleeves continuing the journey, falling off the cliffs of his knuckles. His too-short pant legs barely made it beyond his calves, landing just above black high-top work boots.
The short, pudgy woman wore black baggy sweat pants that hung out of red rubber boots, ringed at the top with, what probably was, at one time, white fur. Four safety pins fastened over a broken zipper held her tattered hooded sweat jacket closed. A large, white paper Christmas bow, bobby-pinned to her uncombed bronze hair, was placed smack dab at the top of her head. She looked like a forgotten package all wrapped up for the holidays, then stuck away in the closet and left there to collect dust. She made a beeline for the buffet and without pause, began circling the table, scooping food with her right hand and dumping it into her widespread left-hand-turned-plate.
I was at once horrified and fascinated at this turn of events. I was horrified at what I assumed were three city moochers who somehow learned about the meal of the century and came directly from their cardboard box living rooms into in my house to land free food. Yet I was fascinated by the three of them. The chubby woman deftly swooping food from the buffet. Goliath standing in rigor mortis behind the dining room door. The bizarre little man in the living room, now examining lint on his jacket. Who were they? How did three rumpled people end up at my fancy party? Should I shoo them away? And if so, how? Were they dangerous? Should I call the police? What were my other guests thinking?
I stared in awe at the expertise the round woman exhibited as she swiftly and magnificently orchestrated her way through each food item, and with pure and absolute finesse, pile it onto her left hand-plate. It was amazing what that hand could hold. Across her wide-spread fingers tips she placed generous slices of ham, sirloin filet, cheese, and bread. Across her knuckles, she placed brownies, cookies, pound cake, and cranberry bread. At the V of her fingers she piled chunks of salmon, quiche, potato chips, and crackers. And in her palm, she dumped all the sloppy stuff - sour cream, onion dip, baked brie, and cream cheese. She ate a bit of everything as she went. A slice of beef into her mouth, a slice of beef into her hand. Brownie into her mouth, brownie into her hand. All around the table. Several times. Eating and piling. Eating and piling. The other guests backed away and gave extra space to this woman whirling around the buffet with such indiscretion.
The president of the congregation sidled up to me. “That’s Bill and Rose. Don’t worry, they’re harmless. We all know who they are. They live together in government housing, and they go to everything in Youngstown that has free food. They check the paper for funerals, library meetings, and church potlucks. They must have seen your open house advertised in our newsletter. They’re always at our potlucks, but they never bring anything”
Good, I thought. Who’d eat it?
“Who’s that guy lurking in the corner?” I asked. “He looks like he just got discharged from an institution – I’ll bet he’s wearing a hospital bracelet.”
“I don’t know him - he’s a new one. But if he’s a friend of Bill and Rose, he’s probably ok too.”
I thought about the phone call earlier that had excited me so much and had reassured me that my party would be a success. It had been Bill, this strange short not-quite-homeless man with bad hair who wanted to celebrate Christmas with his friends - just like the rest of us. Bill, Rose, and . . . well, . . . Lurch had come to my party to feel the warmth and joy of the season – just like the rest of us. They wanted to eat, drink, and be merry – just like the rest of us.
Shame hit my face like a hot washcloth. Who was I to feel superior to three people in need? Was this not an open house? Did I not welcome them before I knew who they were? I walked over to Rose and said, “Here let me help you.” I picked up a plate, piled it with food, and handed it to her. “Would you like to sit down?” I led her to an easy chair.
Then I made another plate and took it to the man hovering in the corner. He smiled at me and, without pause, shoved what he could into his mouth - ham, cheese, cookies, potato chips – whatever would fit. I smiled back. He refused my offer to sit down. “Naw,” he said. “I like it here.”
Bill found his way into the dining room and began filling his own plate. He handled himself with the decorum and grace of a long-practiced buffet-guest. I introduced myself, and we fell into a conversation about adding nuts to brownies.
The hum of the party regained its harmony and rhythm - clinks, laughs, music, and good conversation. It was an open house - after all.
We lived in Youngstown for the next five years, and as much as I continued to dislike the city, I came to love the people – even Bill and Rose, who began bringing a package of English muffins to our potlucks after Ed told them it was important to contribute. We never learned anything more about the guy who hid in the corner.