At exactly 3:15 p.m. yesterday, Ed Lott eased his tow truck into a space in front of Sheldon "Sam" Deller's home near the Pennsylvania line. Half a dozen cars quickly pulled up behind him, and people piled onto the front lawn. Venessa Bond rang the bell, and Deller came to the door, surveying the crowd of unknown faces.
"Sam, I would like to let you know there's a secret Santa," Bond told him. "There's a gift."
She jangled a set of keys and gestured to the tow truck. It was carrying a green 1998 Plymouth Voyager - Deller's new car.
The 48-year-old's kidneys are failing, and he had no reliable transportation to dialysis in Bel Air. As his family swirled around him, hugging and crying, Deller asked again and again, "Who did this? Who is this from?"
Watching the happy scene from afar was the tow truck driver, wearing a Santa hat and surreptitiously wiping tears from his eyes.
But Ed Lott wasn't just the delivery guy. For five Christmases now, Lott, a 38-year-old auto wholesaler who lives in Fallston, has found people who need vehicles and surprised them on Dec. 24. He stays in the background and doesn't tell the recipient that he is the secret Santa because he's not there for gratitude and praise.
"The reason I do it is for the reactions I see," he says. "It makes my Christmas every year."
This year, Lott has his own problems. His industry is tanking, and, like Deller, his kidneys are failing. But in some ways, he says, that made it even more important to continue the donation project.
"There is so much bad news, so much negativity," Lott says. "It's nice to show people that all hope is not lost. There is still good left in the world."
Lott says he knows he could just donate to one of the many organizations that give or cheaply sell cars to the needy, but that doesn't have the same magic of a direct gift.
He buys a gently used car, has it fixed up, inspected and cleaned and pays for the title work, registration and taxes. This year, Lott's friend Bernie Schrenker of Fallston donated the detail work, and Fallston Motor Company did the inspection and paid for the paperwork.
Cars can be vehicles of change, Lott says. He saw it with a recipient two years ago. The single mother of three, living in Bel Air, walked everywhere with her kids - to school, the library, the grocery store. After Lott gave her a minivan on Christmas Eve 2006, she got a job and remarried.
"She has a completely different life now," he says. "Was it the minivan? You never know."
Lott has loved cars since he was 15. In college - Harford Community College and then Towson University - he bought used cars, fixed them up and sold them. "It became a passion," he says.
After graduating with a business degree, Lott made a career of cars. He describes himself as "the behind-the-scenes guy," who goes to auctions and resells to dealers.
The troubled auto industry has slowed Lott's business to a crawl; people are not trading in, and dealers don't want to buy as many used cars. "I'm hurting, like everyone else," he says, but he has enough savings to "burrow in" and ride out the downturn.
Bad news was what drove Lott to begin his donation project. He says he felt as if everyone around him was losing faith in humanity, and he wanted to do something to prove them wrong.
He doesn't remember the first two recipients - just that he gave them Chevy Cavaliers, the first one bright red. ("What can I say? I'm a car guy.") But by the third year, friends were taking pictures and memorializing the event on their Facebook and MySpace Web pages. This year, his mother, Carmen Lott, thought it was time everyone knew about her son's good deeds, so she called the local newspapers.
Lott's search for a deserving recipient starts in April and can be complicated. The person must have a need for a car, but also have a valid driver's license and the ability to pay for insurance. Lott also does on-the-ground research, quietly scoping out the person's house to check for other cars.
"It's really important to me to find someone who genuinely needs this," he says, "not someone who is working the system."
Last year, Lott learned from a friend about a woman in Charlotte, N.C., whose husband - the breadwinner of the family - had been shot to death. The woman lost her car and was struggling to make ends meet. Chris's Towing in Bel Air transported the Toyota Corolla for free. Lott wasn't present, but he was listening on a cell phone.
"There was a lot of crying and yelling and, 'Thank God,' " he says. "I don't think she figured out how she got the car. If she wants to think it was God or Santa Claus or whoever, that's fine with me."
One of Lott's best friends, Venessa Bond, was charged with finding this year's recipient. Bond, 37, has her own Christmas giving traditions - adopting a few families, sending care packages to soldiers overseas - but she has pitched in on several of Lott's donations.
Bond tried a few single mothers but ran into the insurance problem. Then, a social worker at DaVida Bel Air, the dialysis center that Lott uses, had an idea.
Sue Robison recommended Deller, who had been using his brother-in-law's beat-up old truck - unreliable, at best, and with no working air conditioning - to make his frequent trips to DaVida. (Lott and Deller hadn't met each other until yesterday.)
"I recommended him because the need was there and also because he is just such a nice person," Robison says of Deller. "He's had a difficult year, health-wise, and I thought this would lift his spirits."
Robison and Bond talked to one of Deller's sisters, Sonia Orwig, and she agreed that he'd be overjoyed by the gift. The women made Orwig promise to keep the secret. She did.
Bond says she loved the idea of helping out a person facing the same struggle as Lott. "It is a perfect thing to do this year," she says.
Lott learned in February that high blood pressure had ruined his kidneys. He needs daily dialysis and is on the list for a transplant. After the diagnosis, he decided to cancel this year's donation, fearing he wouldn't have the time or energy to do it right. Two weeks later, out of the blue, the sales manager at Bob Bell Chevrolet in Bel Air called saying that his mother-in-law had heard about Lott's project and wanted her minivan to be the donor car this year. Lott took it as a sign.
"Someone up there wants me to keep doing this," he says.
At Deller's house yesterday, Lott was certain he'd made the right choice. Orwig knew Lott was the Secret Santa, and the two embraced in a long, teary hug. Deller lives with another sister, Tenea Sparks, and still more sisters were visiting yesterday. The sisters recalled how bleak things looked last December. On Christmas Eve, Deller was hospitalized for a heart valve replacement, and the relatives barely celebrated at all.
This year, Deller sat in the driver's seat of his new van and turned on the radio. "No one ever gave me anything like this," he said. He called it his best Christmas ever and said he didn't know so many people cared about him.
The gift also carried a bit of a surprise for Lott and Bond: Deller doesn't have a driver's license. He said he'd set about reinstating it right away, and in the meantime, his sister Orwig signed all the paperwork.
From the rear of the minivan, the family unloaded boxes of donated food and gift cards to a local grocery store - extra presents from the people helping Lott with the project.
Deller read over a Christmas card included in the packages. Mixed in among a dozen signatures and notes was the Secret Santa's identity, but it carried no clues. It simply said, "Happy holidays. Ed Lott."