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Giving thanks for the cathedral steps

Gary Caruso | Friday, November 21, 2008

On any evening in Washington, D.C., should you walk a few blocks north of the White House past the Cathedral of St. Matthew, you may notice a lump inconspicuously tucked away to the right of the main doors on the top of the cathedral steps. At times, especially after sundown, it is difficult to see since the lump blends into the shadows of the evening. During the summer, the lump takes on the outline of a cardboard square – or if it is raining, a large black open umbrella. Other times, including now with subzero-degree weather, the lump is completely wrapped in a black sleeping bag.

Having served as a lector at St. Matthew’s Cathedral for nearly two decades, I cannot recall a time when the lump was not at the top of our cathedral steps. While last Sunday our priest reminded us that cathedrals were made so that the homeless can meet the congregation, I did not obviously think of the woman who forms that daily lump. Yet, for some unknown reason this year, I regularly think of her, and especially now as we approach Thanksgiving week. Does she give thanks for anything other than the reliable step upon which she seeks her nightly solace?

To see the woman in person, the average visitor at the cathedral would not know that she was homeless. She is tall and carries herself in a stoic manner. Her clothes are clean. Her makeup immaculately applied with bright red lips. She always wears a black dress, and her black hair is pulled back but has a large white streak which reminds me of the bride of Frankenstein. Most noticeably, though, her constant pacing on the top step or inside the cathedral reveals some personal uneasiness.

While I do not know her name, she assists the staff whenever the cathedral is open. She will replace the booklets in the pew holders and evenly stack the books at the main entrance. When I directly pass her, she nods slowly without saying a word. I oftentimes watch her walk past my home which is located four blocks from the cathedral. I imagine that she uses some facility nearby to groom herself, but I am at a loss to discover where that may be.

Recently, I thought of her while I ate dinner at the Democratic Club located next door to the Democratic National Committee Headquarters building. It was karaoke evening when several talented congressional staff and a few congressional wives belted out tunes to the cheers and applause of the crowd. Television commentator Donna Brazil and campaign wizard Joe Trippi were among several congressional representatives and a European ambassador who were enjoying the amateur entertainment. Surely, none of them were ever curled up in a lump at the top of cathedral stairs.

Yet while sitting amidst these seemingly carefree, materially wealthy and nationally famous personalities, it struck me that everyone needs some type of safe place in life. I wondered to myself how many of the people around me are in reality an Ebenezer Scrooge whose life revolves around the security of a dollar. With all of the status and power in the room, I also imagined how many egos teetered simply on the number of votes cast during an election.

For my entire adult life, Thanksgiving has always been a trip over the Potomac River and through the woods of Southwestern Pennsylvania to be home with family. For most who attended karaoke night, that is considered the ultimate Thanksgiving. But with my parents now both passed on, my dog, Peso, and I will remain in the nation’s capital next week. My only scheduled event is a tour of the White House for one last glimpse of the Oval Office before the new president redecorates. It is a time killer like the Notre Dame – USC game will be the previous day.

Thanksgiving this year is not about bounty, friends or family for me. This year, Thanksgiving will be my own – a personal experience replete with introspection and solace. Ironically, I will think about how in many ways the lump at the top of the cathedral steps is an extremely lucky one. And in my mind, I will search for my own private set of cathedral stairs upon which I can find the comfort and stability that represents a meaningful Thanksgiving holiday. To all in the Notre Dame community and beyond, the best of holiday wishes from Peso and me.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.