Velveta Scott enjoyed a full, sit-down, white-table cloth Thanksgiving meal with her choice of pumpkin or apple pie for dessert. Then she went outside where Jack the Coat Man, occasionally known as Dr. Jack Eliass, the chairman of medicine at Yale University Medical School, helped her try on a winter jacket from the several dozen on the rack that he had collected.
As Elias helped Scott slip on the blue jacket with down fill, he inquired politely, “Will that fit you?”
That scene of Thanksgiving fare and spirit played out Thursday morning as Scott was the first of an expected 400-500 people to queue on Upper State Street to celebrate the holiday early at Christopher Martin’s restaurant and bar.
For the 23rd year co-owner Chris Vigilante created his Thanksgiving occasion for New Haven’s homeless and working poor.
Homeless people are used to soup kitchens, “but we’re a restaurant,” Vigilante said as he presided over shifts of more than 100 volunteer waiters, cooks in bright white shirts and ties and exuding politeness as they scurried about treating needy people like honored guests.
As one volunteer put it, it was not only a meal, but an event. In scene after scene, the Thanksgiving spirit ran like a current between those who give and those who receive.
Scott, who formally goes by the name Adv. (for Advocate) Velveta Scott, has not missed the occasion for a dozen years. Thursday morning she brought her friend Hasohn Towspson and together they had the distinction of being first on line. They arrived at 6:32 and were the first to enter when Chris Vigilante gave Scott a high five and opened the doors at 11 a.m.
By then volunteer Cecilia Oliwa had prepared lettuce and cucumber salad for 400.
An hour or so later, at around 8 a.m. Cherrie Adamczyk arrived with her friends and housemates Darrin and Eugenie Davis. They share living quarters at Dixwell and Henry Streets in Newllhallville. The Davises got married in August, but times became tough for the newlyweds when Darrin came down with a hernia and lost his job at a Popeyes franchise in Milford.
They and Adamczyk get by. Events like Chris Vigilante’s, which Adamczyk has been going to for four years in a row, help.
That’s why she got Darrin out of bed early in the morning. “The food is to die for. No one does dinner, clothes, and toiletries and cosmetics” like Chris Vigilante, she told him.
As she waited in line, Adamczyk read an apocalyptic novel titled Heaven’s Wave. But doomsday was not on her mind. In fact the opposite. “Today is a good beginning, not the end of the world,” she said
Inside volunteers like Mickey White were hard at work in the kitchen. Like many of the kitchen and wait crew, he’s been volunteering for years, having been brought in by friends or, in White’s case, his daughter. He was visiting her in town from Sarasota, Florida, for the holiday, and here he was.
Likewise Dr. Jack Elias heard about the event from a friend who described the elegantly served meal and the provision of other necessities to people in need. “We helped. We fell in love with the activity. It’s a wonderful way to spend Thanksgiving. When someone takes a coat and says ‘thank you,’ it’ll keep me warm the rest of the winter,” he said. He’s been Jack The Coat Man for a decade.
Before diners selected a coat from The Coat Man, they ate, chose their desserts, and then could select belts, shoes, shirts, and warm winter sweaters. Adjacent to the dining area, the taproom at Christopher Martins had been transformed into a clothing store. The women’s items were displayed beneath the Guinness sign, the kids stuff was in the brightly lit window, and clothing for men was arrayed on the bar, pile after pile of neatly pressed shirts, pants, and scarves.
Scott Redmond, 17, presided over protocols for this part of the event—one scarf for person because that item was in short supply. Outside, his mom Leslie presided over the distribution of bags of toothpaste, shampoo, and other toiletries; those too were in short supply.
Many families volunteered together; no words needed to be spoken.
Leslie Redmond is a teacher at the Bear Path School in Hamden. For the last month she and her fifth graders, with the help of local Lions and Rotary clubs, assembled the bags. She made sure that each bag was personally handed by a student into the hand of someone who needed it.
At around 12:30 Cherrie Adamczyk had finished up the meal and was gathering her things. As to the Thanksgiving dinner, she said, “The buns were to die for.”
She hadn’t finished everything, so the waiters provided take-home containers, even for people who may not have a home to take it to.
“I got blankets, shoes, boots, and turkey-to-go,” she said.
Then she joined Darrin and Eugenie Davis as they walked off. Darrin said he was looking forward to spending the balance of the day watching the traditional Thanksgiving football games.