Counting Our Blessings at Thanksgiving

Independence Day, Darwin Day, Veterans Day, Columbus Day, Halloween – there is no person or event too big or too small that the Americans will not commemorate.

And tomorrow, it’s the real biggie – Thanksgiving.

It was November 2008 that I went to Los Angeles for only the second time in my life and decided that I wanted to live in the USA. I was enjoying my 50th birthday treat to myself and staying at the five-star Beverly Wilshire at the bottom of Rodeo Drive, the outside of which features in the film Pretty Woman (the interior was filmed on a set, as I disappointingly discovered).

I also discovered that Thanksgiving is no time to be alone in the US. The few people I knew had either gone away for the holiday or were entertaining family and, like Christmas, it seemed a time only for nearest and dearest.

So I decided to have my Thanksgiving dinner in the hotel, surrounded by families and couples too lazy to cook their own turkey. One problem: my dinner never arrived. I waited. And waited. But it never came. The hotel is my favorite in the world and they rarely get things wrong, but being the only person in America who didn’t get to nibble a bit of turkey on Thanksgiving was rather galling.

They made up for it by giving me a complimentary meal on my return the following March, but by that time I was heavily into my new healthy lifestyle, and a leaf is no substitute for a juicy chunk of ugly animal.

The next year, which was my first living in the States, I was invited to Santa Monica for my dinner, but didn’t want to have to worry about transport, so passed on the offer. The group Brits in LA were offering a dinner for ex-pat waifs and strays at the Hudson club and restaurant, and the Beverly Wilshire had its usual spectacular menu (or so I understood, according to the people who had had the privilege of tasting it).

I was considering all my options, when it suddenly hit me: Thanksgiving wasn’t a big deal to me, but it was to Americans. In the UK, there were always so many organizations begging for volunteers to make Christmas just a little bit special for people less fortunate than themselves, and it was probably the same for Thanksgiving in the States.

I went online and, sure enough, discovered that Thanksgiving is a really dreadful time for the homeless. Of course, every single day is a bad one if you have no home, but there is something about festive occasions that reinforces the desperation with added poignancy.

So I decided to sign up to do volunteer work, serving food and beverages down on Skid Row. It was a place I had heard about only in movies and on TV; in the musical Little Shop of Horrors, there is a song called Skid Row, which is a rather jolly little number that had me tapping my hands on the gym treadmill when I exercise to it. Yes, Skid Row was where I would spend Thanksgiving.

After all, the books I had been reading to further my emotional and spiritual “journey” as they are wont to call it in the States (I was so LA at this time), kept emphasizing the importance of being of service to others, and what better opportunity was I going to get than being precisely that, on one of the most special days of the year.

I went online again and saw Ally McBeal/Brothers and Sisters star Calista Flockhart in an apron and brandishing a spoon at a dinner for the homeless the previous Thanksgiving; and the web was full of stories of other stars who did their bit for the downtrodden.

I was about to join them and started to make calls. But guess what… I couldn’t get in! Be a volunteer at Thanksgiving? You have to be bloody joking, was the general riposte. Join the bloody queue.

The queue to be a volunteer helping the homeless in LA at Thanksgiving turned out to be longer than the one of people in the queue for their dinner. In fact, I had even missed the boat for Christmas and was looking to the following year’s Thanksgiving if I stood a snowball’s chance of doing my bit.

How far we have come since Mary, Joseph and Jesus couldn’t find any room at the inn? I was trying to be an innkeeper and they still wouldn’t let me in. How weird was that? Too many celebrities looking for a photo opportunity, I reckoned.

Is the volunteer list as long in the UK? I have no idea, but it warmed my heart to know that there were so many people who would give up their time, rather than just open their wallets, to make their fellow beings’ lives more comfortable. And it made me want to get on that list and do something for real.

For the past few years in New York City, I’ve been helping out at Mr Biggs, where owner Richie Friendley opens up his bar and restaurant to serve hundreds of homeless people; outside, there is also a clothes bank, to which people donate over many months and at which coats in particular are snapped up for the cold winter on the streets that sadly lies in wait for so many.

This year, because of the pandemic, Richie is unable to do either, and it’s heartbreaking: not only for him, a great supporter of the community as a whole (he knows only too well that a homeless person isn’t just for Thanksgiving), but for those who came in search of a hot meal and company on the most lonely day of the year.

They were on the streets for so many reasons – divorce, substance abuse, joblessness… it was humbling to hear so many stories – and incredibly sad, in a world where so many have so much, that so many slip through the net, often through no fault of their own.

This year, I’m having a quiet one by myself (though quite why I felt the need to order a 12lb turkey is anybody’s guess). As we draw to the end of a terrible year, there is still so much to be grateful for. I am alive, for starters; and for the blessing of even still being here, the real thanks must go to the essential workers who put their own lives on the line in order to serve – and save – others; their sacrifice (literally, for those who died in service) has meant the difference between life and death for the rest of us.

Shame on the selfish who refuse to sacrifice this one day, one year, in order to give thanks to them. You will undoubtedly have blood on your hands.

And it won’t be just be that of the turkey.