Come Saturday, if you're looking for Robbie Smith, 33-year-old single mother of four, you'd better head up to Pleasant Ridge over in Stowe. Weave around the 250 people, most of them lower-income residents of the community, gathered for the annual holiday pancakes-and-sausage breakfast.
What? Still can't find her? Wiggle the knob on one of those locked doors: She's probably in there, amid about 1,000 donated toys. Good chance she's frantic, just as she was last year, sorting out all those presents by age and interest, taking care to assure that the right gifts are handed to the right kids.
But if you're looking for Ms. Smith on Christmas Day itself, don't for a minute think you'll find her in the spotless home she runs -- truly you could eat your Christmas goose off this floor and feel guilty if a drop of gravy spills. Nope, you'd better head down to Oakland, where she and her children are almost certainly going to be at a soup kitchen, delivering meals to those who have so little.
Hold it right there, Shribman. You're in the wrong story here. Get a grip. Isn't this supposed to be one of those heartfelt narratives you type every year, about some down-and-out family far from Squirrel Hill and Mt. Lebanon that needs toys for Christmas, the kind of formulaic story you specialize in, one that always slyly tucks in a plea for the Post-Gazette Goodfellows Fund, along with a few paragraphs you'll inevitably lift from last year's story about how this fund has served Pittsburgh since 1947? Get back to business, and fast: Think about reusing that treacly line from 2011 about "gifts under the tree, laughs at the holidays and memories to last," and get on with your usual trick of padding out the story with descriptions of red-and-green decorations around the house.
No, no, no. That's not going to work. Because:
There are no holiday decorations at Ms. Smith's house. The holiday spirit isn't wrapped up in wrapping gifts over here. In fact, Ms. Smith has pretty much had it with Christmas, 21st century style, and in truth she's not really looking for gifts. Her story shatters the mold.
"Christmas is not what is under the tree," she says, and you probably can imagine your correspondent writing that down, worrying with every scribble on his pad how he's ever going to write this one up. "That's all kids think about today -- and it's all electronics. They've lost the meaning of Christmas. The religion and spiritual content is gone. I'm not sure why or how that happened. Maybe it's because we tried too hard to please our kids."
Ms. Smith's kids themselves -- Markus, 16, ShaVonne, 10, Demontae, 8, and ShaLeah, 2 -- haven't been making any big gift lists, let alone checking them twice. They know even if there were more money for holiday gifts -- Ms. Smith is one of those women who holds the SLOW/STOP sign at road construction sites -- they'd still be a family that actually lives the better-to-give-than-receive ethos we preach at the holidays, usually for other people and not ourselves.
Maybe this is the real Pittsburgh Christmas story after all.
Call up Chris Waugh, the property manager at Pleasant Ridge, and she'll tell you that last year Ms. Smith was one of the people who made that holiday party both a holiday and a party. "I could not do this," Ms. Waugh says, "without her."
Hey, OK. We get it. A story about the true holiday spirit instead of the usual plea, as predictable as those public-broadcasting interludes: It wouldn't be Christmas without blah, blah, blah. But it wouldn't be one of your typical Goodfellows stories without some reverie about Christmases past. That's one of your annual tricks, Shribman, part of the ballast you build into these stories. Don't let us down now.
Fine, you win. Let's listen again to Ms. Smith:
"My memories of Christmas involve visiting relatives and eating at everybody's house. It wasn't about gifts. We didn't get 15 new outfits and 40 electronics. Each of us got a handful of things."
Now let's get on with the rest of the story. Of course these kids would like some presents, though even the bookworm with the reporter's notepad is startled to hear the reason Demontae says he'd like a Kindle. "I'd study math and reading," he says. "Did you know you can use it to read in the dark? I love to read. I like every kind of book."
So OK, here's the plea, real fast: So many in our community have so much, and so many have so little. This is the time of the year for the ones on the much side of the ledger to remember those on the little side of the ledger. Not romanticizing here. There's no romance to this comment, which your correspondent, no amateur at this art form, had to wrestle out of Ms. Smith:
"With four kids it's hard to keep up, especially nowadays. It doesn't matter how many jobs you have. Things are expensive and it's only going to get worse."
Done with that. Here is the place where we mention that Ms. Smith has $30,000 in student loans herself, and where we add that there's no way an 8-year-old who wants to do extra math and reading should be denied.
No more preaching, no more leaching off last year's Goodfellows story. Just a coupon and a reminder that we at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will be accepting checks through the holiday season. Hope yours will be in there somewhere. Over and out, till next year.
Today's total: $5,157
Grand total: $50,537.83
In memory of Andrew Hackworth from Anonymous $500
Esther Barazzone $200
Janet M. Fawcett $200
In honor of Ben, Finley, Hazel and Jack $200
E. Siegal and W. Manifesto $200
The Feduska family $150
Sam and Barbara Costanzo $150
In memory of Grace R. Gillen $101
Barbara Cameron $100
Jeff and Sharon Evans $100
In memory of Constance Opipare Yankus $100
In memory of Paula Bauer Vezzani $100
Steve and Beth Kusen $100
John Frick $100
Joan and Keith Bernard $100
James Howell $75
Ron, Phyllis, Chris, Chris, and Noah Luther $50
Florence Henderson $50
The Evangelista family $50
Leni Roberts $50
In memory of Joe Crawshaw $50
In memory of Donovan Sanks $50
Karen and Harvey Shipkovitz $50
Mary and John Davis $50
Alice Perrott $50
Mr. and Mrs. W. Szafranski $50
In memory of Stewart Gailey $50
Herb and Shirley Brankley $50
Kathleen Johnson $50
Anthony Sorce $50
In memory of Jack M. Jones $50
Jeff Wisniewski $50
Rita Woods $50
Kathy and Len Stept $50
Dave Lebec $50
Mr. and Mrs. Milton Eisner $50
In memory of Stacy Remensky $50
Armand and Carole Lombardo $50
Jessica Bellas $50
In loving memory of Susan Pearson Edwards $50
Beth and Allan Scaggs $50
Elizabeth J. Scheide, Ph.D. $45
Karen and Chuck Nelis $40
Mr. Edward N. Roolf Jr. $35
Sherry Dinnen $30
Marjorie Bakkila $30
In memory of Bill Bawm $30
Barbara Pridemore $25
Lee Taylor $25
In honor of Sasha Hope Miller $25
In memory of Riley P. Miller $25
John and Carol Fedor $25
Mrs. Harry Griffith $25
L. J. Ranallo $25
Gerry Deutsch $25
In memory of Edward and Michael Kelly $25
Paul and Judy Sundo $25
John Gehr $25
Bill Biesecker $25
Maxine J. Roberts $25
Judy Mattarochia $25
Long family $25
Brenda George $25
Max and Nick Hrebik $25
Leonard and Lena Chakan $25
Joanne Bakuhn $25
Mr. and Mrs. John R. Yoho $25
Edward Barrett $25
Mick and Nancy Rawe $20
Raymond E. Bair $20
Pat Frender $15
In memory of Jacob Bendel $15
Bruce Paul Sloss $15
Thelma Kerr $15
Katie Cain $15
Julius DeFelices $10
Ray and Maureen Contestabile $10
James A. Kramer, Jr. $10
Rich and Cindy Aleski $10
Frank Kravetz $5
Poor Guy $1
David Shribman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1890.