The Thanksgiving meal waiting inside was warm and rich, but the scores of people standing in line outside at the Virginia S. Baker Recreation Center on Thursday morning looked somber as the cold wind whipped past them.
But just after 10 a.m., a tiny woman in a leopard-print jacket and purple and black leotard showed up and began building an aerial rig resembling a giant swing set rising 22 feet into the sky in nearby Patterson Park. A group of friends — some buskers, some clowns, also dressed frivolously in tutus or cowboy vests — took to stilts or grabbed a hula hoop and began twirling.
Faces in the long line awaiting the annual Thanksgiving dinner served by Bea Gaddy Family Center turned toward the colorful sight. Lips creased in smiles and children began running toward the impromptu circus.
This is what Regina Armenta was aiming for when she cooked up this annual show for the homeless and poor standing in line: Give them an appetizer of entertainment to lighten spirits and help the time pass more quickly.
"I always felt like it was just boring waiting in line for anything," said Armenta, who repeatedly climbed a long white sheet hanging from the aerial rig and began twirling, flipping and contorting like a bird bouncing in the wind. "My family is far away, and I wanted to do something fun. And I don't cook."
Armenta, 39, a yoga instructor who works with people recovering from back injuries, also works as an entertainer who goes by the stage name of Velocity Charms. She performs at concerts, festivals and parades, employing talents that include stilt-walking, trapeze, juggling and twirling flaming hula hoops.
She began performing each Thanksgiving for the soup kitchen line about five years ago. She got the idea after offering to volunteer as a server inside the recreation center. That year, there were so many volunteers she was asked to wait. She got bored, went to her car and pulled out a few hula hoops she had stowed in her trunk. She saw several children in line and wondered if she could make their waits more tolerable, as well.
"I just recruited the kids out of the line and they just started playing," she said.
She saw eyes light up and laughter break out so she began doing it nearly every year since.
"It's mesmerizing," said Curtis Gordon, 50, whose own curiosity on Thursday pulled him out of the food line to take a few cracks at juggling with the volunteer performers. "It captivated me."
As in previous years, children were the first to run to the little circus in the park and join the hula hooping and juggling, something their parents were thankful for, if only to ward off the cold through activity.
"It's got to be nice to be something other than cold," said Asa Keiswetter, 33, a hobbyist stilt-walker who volunteered with Armenta.
As the performers taught kids tricks, people filled up on turkey, sweet potatoes, corn, green beans, cranberry sauce, pumpkin and cherry pie, then exited the warm recreation center carrying bags of free bread. The wind was stiff, but as they walked past Armenta twirling a hula hoop on giant stilts they slowed and smiled before they picked up their pace again and headed home.
"It takes their mind off the cold, standing and waiting," Kathy McLean, Armenta's girlfriend and business partner, said. "It makes their spirit a little lighter."