On the 12th day before Christmas: The man on the phone described himself as an advertising sales manager. He said he had just been laid off.
"This stinks," he said, and his voice shook with anger. "This really stinks. This stinks to high heaven."
The man said he was 45 years old and had had only three years of college. He said he had three children and had just bought a new home in Catonsville.
"What am I supposed to do now?" the man demanded. "What am I supposed to do? I can't believe this. This stinks. This will be my worst Christmas ever, believe me."
"So what will you do?" I asked.
There was a long, long silence on the phone. When the man spoke again he sounded more defensive than mad.
"I guess it'll be all right," he said. "I just needed to blow off some steam."
Then he hung up.
On the 11th day before Christmas: The waiting room of the Community Blood and Plasma Center at Baltimore and Eutaw streets was packed with people.
A man named Steve came out.
"It's a way of picking up a few dollars," he said. "Sometimes I go down to the temporary place and if they don't have anything, sometimes I come here."
"How much money do you get?" I asked.
"About $9," he said. "If you come a certain number of times in a month, you get a bonus -- $17. Then they put your name in and if they draw that, you could get $400. I never got that, though." He chuckled.
Steve said he was unemployed.
He said he worked for the state for nine years before he got laid off. He said he did construction work from time to time. Now, he said, he was waiting for the unemployment checks to kick in and picking up a few dollars by donating blood plasma. "My oldest kid wants a bike this Christmas," he said.
"Will he get it?" I asked.
"Yeah," said Steve. "My sister said she would help out. Just till I get through this, you know, this period."
On the 10th day before Christmas: It rained all day. And it was cold. I watched Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life" on television. Then I watched "Miracle on 34th Street."
On the ninth day before Christmas: A man and a woman stood in the parking lot at Harbor Hospital Center.
I told them I was doing a story about this Christmas season.
"My mother is very sick," said the woman simply and started to turn away. But then she turned back to me. "Do you pray?" she asked grimly.
"Sometimes," I said. Then Iamended that. "Yes," I said.
"Then pray for us," said the woman. "Pray for all of us."
On the eighth day before Christmas: At a grocery store in Mondawmin Mall, a woman bought a loaf of bread, bacon and apples.
"I think this will be a very nice Christmas," she said cheerfully. "But you know, Christmas really is for the children anyway."
The woman said she did not work. She said she had three children. She said she was divorced.
"I have high hopes for 1991," said the woman.
"Will your kids get everything they want for Christmas?" I asked.
The woman laughed. "Children," she said, "never get everything they want."
People in the checkout line behind us began to grumble.
"I better get going," said the woman. "I have a long walk."
"Here," I said in a burst of Christmas spirit, "let me offer you a ride."
On the seventh day before Christmas: I caught "It's A Wonderful Life" on television again. But this time it was different. This time I saw the colorized version.
On the sixth day before Christmas: An elderly man sat at a concrete picnic table in a small park off of Greenmount Avenue. He took occasional sips from a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag and he stared out at the street with red eyes.
"Get away from me!" he shouted.
He cursed and took another sip.
He stared at me bitterly when I did not retreat right away.
"Get away from me, I said!" he shouted again, waving his arms.
I backed off.
A group of men sitting at benches near by began to laugh. "Don't mind him," one of them called.
It was a warm, springlike day, with a bright blue sky and fluffy white clouds.
The elderly man sat alone, gripping his paper bag.
On the fifth day before Christmas: We're driving along and the newscaster on the radio reports that a general in the gulf doesn't believe U.S. forces will be ready to attack Iraq by the Jan. 15 deadline.
But then a Pentagon official says American air power will be ready.
Two U.S. senators say they believe a war could be concluded quickly. But others predict a long and bloody ground battle.
We listened to all of this in silence.
Finally, I get fed up.
"Check this out," I say. I pop in a cassette of jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis playing Christmas music.
"Much, much better," says my friend to the funky strands of Lewis' version of "A Christmas Song."
On the fourth day before Christmas: Rain.
On the 3rd day before Christmas: "The Redskins lost," said a friend.
"I know," I said. "But life goes on."
On the second day before Christmas: "What you ought to be doing," said the deacon's wife looking around her contemptuously, "is a story on how some people never show up for church but two times a year -- Christmas and Easter."
The deacon, an elderly man wearing a dark suit and white gloves, winked and pinched me on the arm.
"Better two times a year than never," he said.
On the day before Christmas: "So," asked a colleague, "what're you going to do tonight?"
"I've got 'It's A Wonderful Life' on tape," I said. "I'll probably watch that all night."
"I wonder why people keep watching that thing over and over again every Christmas," said my colleague. "Don't you ever get tired of it?"
"I think," I said, "we keep needing to be reminded that life is never as hard or as grim as it sometimes seems."