Once upon a time just a few days after Christmas and a few more before New Year's Eve, an old homeless man was wandering down the sidewalk late in the evening. He carried two large shopping bags stuffed with old clothes, newspapers, and a blanket. Although it was already cold, he knew it was going to get even worse before the night was over. This didn't bother him too much though because he knew where to find warm grates to sleep on. He thought that with the clothes and newspapers in his bags to wrap up in, and the blanket to cover up with, he would be pretty comfortable—unless it snowed.
The old man rubbed his stomach. If only he had something to eat! He had gone to a local soup kitchen, but a sign on the door had said, "Closed." It didn't say why. He had tried to panhandle money, but people kept ignoring him, and after a while, a cop told him to move along.
The homeless man turned into an alley that ran behind a warehouse. At the end of the alley, on an empty lot, some people had started a fire in a large trashcan. They were burning pieces of wood from a broken fence, and most of them were rubbing their hands and standing as close as they could to the flames.
“Hello,” the old man said to no one in particular. He wanted them to know that he wasn’t looking for trouble.
“Hello yourself,” replied a voice from the huddled group.
“Is it okay if I get warm by your fire?” the old man asked.
“It’s a free country,” said the same voice. It came from a woman wrapped up in a worn coat and a huge woolen scarf that had more holes than fluff left in it.
The old man moved closer and set down his bags. The heat felt good against his face.
“This is very nice,” he said. He took off the one glove that he was wearing and put it on the other hand. “Very nice, indeed.”
Just then, his stomach grumbled. Nobody seemed to notice, but he was embarrassed all the same.
“Oh, my,” he said, looking down at the ground. He stood perfectly still, hoping that his belly would keep quiet and not draw any unnecessary attention to him, but after a while, it rumbled again--and this time, quite loudly!
“Oh, my, my, my,” the old man exclaimed, concerned that his new companions might consider him rude. “I really do apologize, but my insides are as empty as a quarry. I wonder if anyone here might have some food they could share with me tonight?”
“Now, don’t be silly,” answered the lady with the tattered scarf. “Where would any of us get something to eat on a night like this? The church fed us at Christmas, but they can only do that once a year. The soup kitchen closed early because too many people went there for lunch and they ran out of stew for supper. And the food pantry has run low on groceries because there’s so many more folks that need help these days.”
The old man nodded slowly.
“Yes, I see,” he said. He rubbed his empty belly and sighed. “Guess I’ll just have to have some Stogie Soup tonight.”
“Stogie Soup!” the scarf-lady exclaimed. “I never heard of such a thing. How do you make it?”
“I’ll show you,” the old man said. “But first, I must find something to use for a pot, and, of course, I’ll need some water.”
“Well,” said a pale man who was standing nearby, “I saw a metal tub in back of the hardware store today. If I go get it and fill it with water, can I have some of that soup you’re going to make?”
“Why certainly,” said the old man.
A mother and her son who were sitting close to the warehouse wall came over to the fire barrel.
“Excuse me,” the mother said, “but I couldn’t help hearing that you’re going to make soup. If we help bring the tub back, might we have some, too?”
“Of course,” said the old man. “The more, the merrier.”
In a flash, the young man, the mother, and her son took off, and even more quickly, returned, carrying the water-filled tub. It really wasn’t too clean a container, and the liquid inside looked murky, but nobody complained as they set it on the barrel to heat.
The old man reached into his pocket and pulled out the leftover stub of a cigar.
"Now for the stogie," he said as he tossed it into the tub. He picked up a piece of wood and began to stir the water. "That should be just enough stogie to give this soup some flavor."
The people who had been standing around crowded a little closer to see what he was doing.
The old man leaned over the tub and sniffed.
"Yes," he said. "This is just about the best Stogie Soup that ever was. And there'll be so much of it—enough for everyone to have a bowl."
"Is it really that good?" asked a lady with a broken tooth. She was leaning against a shopping cart that held several plastic sacks and a battered suitcase.
"Why, of course it is!" exclaimed the old man. He sniffed at the tub again. "I don't think I've ever made better. Well, maybe once, when I had some meat to throw in it."
He looked at the lady with the shopping-cart and scratched his head.
"You wouldn't happen to have any meat, would you?"
"Not really," she told him. "But I do have a can of cat food I've been saving for a special occasion. Would that do?"
She dug through the bags in her cart and produced a can with a picture of a kitten on the label.
"Why, this is wonderful!" exclaimed the old man as he popped open the tin and emptied the contents into the tub. "Liver and rice is about as good as it gets!"
The lady smiled and watched him stir the pot. "Soup from a stogie! Imagine that," she said.
The aroma of something cooking started to attract other homeless people to the fire. A young man with long, stringy hair that hadn’t been washed in a while drew closer to the tub. He set down his knapsack and took a deep sniff.
“What is it you’re making?” he asked.
“Stogie Soup,” the old man replied. “And it’s as good a soup as I’ve ever made, if I do say so myself.” He looked wistfully at his creation. “If I only had a few vegetables, this would undoubtedly turn out to be the absolute best stogie soup in the history of the world!”
The young man grinned and reached into his knapsack.
“It just so happens,” he said, “that I found some carrot greens and a few soft turnips in the dumpster behind the supermarket. Do you think these would do for your soup?”
“Why, of course they would,” the old man exclaimed as he took the vegetables and stirred them into the pot. “Nothin’ better than carrot greens and turnips, I always say.”
The young man watched as the soup boiled. “Soup from a stogie! Imagine that!” he said.
The crowd of people gathering around the fire grew bigger as the aroma of cooking food drifted across the empty lot and through the alley.
An extremely thin teenage girl wriggled through to the barrel. She was holding a dented can of spaghetti and two packets of non-dairy creamer.
“Will these be any good for the soup?” she asked.
The old man nodded and pulled out a pocketknife with an opener attachment.
“Certainly,” he said as he worked the top off the can and added it to the pot. He tore the creamer packets in half and sprinkled them over the soup.
“Starches and milk products--even pretend milk products—are an important part of a well-balanced diet.”
The teenage girl beamed as she watched the mixture bubble. “Soup from a stogie. Imagine that!” she said.
Just then, a car pulled up to the curb not twenty feet from the fire. A young couple dressed in very nice evening clothes got out and approached the crowd. They looked everyone over for a moment as if they were trying to figure out who was in charge.
The old man took a step toward them.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked politely.
The well-dressed man smiled. "We were just on our way to the theater, and we were going to stop by the food pantry with a donation,” he said. “We always try to give a little something extra to charity at the end of the fiscal year. But, it seems that the pantry is closed, so we have a bag of odds and ends that we’d be just as happy to give to you, if you’d like.”
“Why, that would be most welcome,” the old man told him. “And in return for your generosity, we’d like to offer you the opportunity to share our meal with us.”
The well-dressed woman walked back to the car and returned carrying a sack. She handed it to the lady with the shopping cart then glanced at the soup in the metal tub.
“That certainly smells, uh—interesting,” she said. “But we’ve already had dinner, and we don’t want to be late for the show.”
“But this is Stogie Soup,” the old man explained.
“And I’ll bet it’s terrific,” said the well-dressed man. “Still, the play starts pretty soon, and we really can’t be late.”
The couple waved as they reached the car.
“Soup from a stogie. Imagine that!” they said to each other, making sour faces and shuddering as they drove away.
After they left, the old man turned to the lady with the shopping cart.
“So, what’s in the bag?” he asked.
“Two cans of mushrooms, four packs of Chinese noodles, a tin of sardines, three—no, four cans of pork and beans, a box of fancy crackers, and a tube of anchovy paste,” she called out as she handed the items to him one at a time.
“Outstanding!” said the old man. “Let’s open ’em up and dump ’em in.”
And he did.
The smell of the food as it cooked grew even stronger, and the people nudged each other in anticipation of the meal to come. Once in a while, someone would pass an item forward to add to the soup: A partial bottle of wine, some packets of ketchup from a fast food restaurant, even a stick of gum. All, in turn, were received by the old man, who laughed with delight as he stirred each offering into the tub.
And every time he did, a whisper would ripple through the crowd.
“Soup from a stogie. Imagine that!” the soft-spoken voices said.
Suddenly, the short blast of a police siren burst from a cruiser that pulled halfway onto the sidewalk. Most of the people looked up; some of them startled, some scared. A few melted out of sight into the shadows.
Two officers got out of the car and strode over to the barrel.
“What’s going on here?” one of them asked. “Don’t you know it’s against city ordinances to have an outdoor fire without a permit?”
The old man shrugged. “I’m sorry, Officer,” he said. “But we were all so cold, and we wanted to make a hot meal for ourselves to help us keep warm tonight.”
The second police officer looked at the tub and scratched his head.
“What is it you’re making?” he asked.
“Stogie Soup,” the old man told him. “Probably the best Stogie Soup anyone ever made. Would you like to share some with us?”
The policemen looked at each other.
“I don’t think so,” one of them said. “But thanks, anyway. You go ahead and finish your cooking. Just don’t leave that fire unattended.”
They went back to their car, then one of them returned with a package of shredded beef jerky.
“Maybe you could use this?” he offered.
“Why, thank you,” said the old man as he opened it and sprinkled the bits of leathery meat into the tub.
As the policeman walked away, he shook his head and muttered, “Soup from a stogie! Imagine that!”
The old man kept stirring the pot, and the others gathered closer and closer, licking their lips as the aroma of cooking food grew stronger.
“Almost ready,” said the old man. “What shall we serve the soup in?”
The hungry crowd of people reached into their pockets and bags and produced paper cups and chipped mugs. Some of them gathered the containers that had come from the donated bag of food. The old man picked up the dented spaghetti can to use as a ladle for distributing the soup.
No sooner had he begun to scoop the first serving, than a limousine rounded the corner and ground to a screeching halt. A man in a chauffeur’s uniform leaped from behind the steering wheel, stepped smartly to the rear door, and opened it. Another man, looking very important and wearing the most expensive suit anyone had ever seen, got out of the limo and strode purposely toward the crowd. He was quickly joined by a woman holding a note pad and by a photographer whose camera flashed frequently as he snapped a steady stream of pictures.
The man in the suit stopped short of the congregation of homeless people who stood with their varied containers clutched in their hands. He extended his arms outward as if he could embrace the entire assembly.
“My friends,” he said, expansively. “My name is Jim Allmouth, and I am your congressman. I can see by the looks on your faces and the humble, but honest, goblets in your hands that you are about to partake of a bounteous feast. What, may I ask, is the nature of your repast?”
The people standing around the fire looked at him as if he were speaking a foreign language. Still, he waited as if he expected a response. Eventually, the old man spoke up.
“This here is Stogie Soup, and you’re welcome to share some if you’d like.”
He filled the dented can and passed it forward. Congressman Allmouth took it and raised it to make a toast.
“Here’s to all of you, my fine constituents. Here’s to better times. As I look over your kind and generous faces, I am moved to want to see justice done. I think it is wonderful that people like you can come together to create a magnificent meal such as this, and I am angered that this country cannot at least provide you a decent pot to cook it in. Therefore, I am announcing that someday in the near future, I will propose legislation to begin a program for the distribution of new pots and pans for the destitute of this fair city.”
The smile on his face grew increasingly large, and the camera flashed again.
Some of the people coughed, and others murmured rude comments, which the congressman could not hear very well. He assumed the sound of voices was a sign of approval, and he took a big drink of the soup to complete his toast.
He swallowed then held his breath for a very long time. The huge smile froze on his face, and his eyes glazed over.
Ever so slowly, he passed the can back to the old man.
“Gotta go,” he rasped as he lurched toward the limo.
“Soup from a stogie,” he hissed at the chauffeur as he staggered inside the car. “Imagine that!”
The crowd watched as they sped off then extended their cups and cans for some of the soup. The old man distributed a healthy portion to everyone and seconds to all who wanted it—which was most of them.
As they sat around in small groups, huddled against the cold, but with their bellies full, all agreed that their group effort had, indeed, produced a huge meal for everyone. They also all agreed that it tasted absolutely awful, but then they knew the saying “Beggars can’t be choosers” was true, and the next day would bring new challenges for survival.
Their meal finished, the tub was removed from the barrel, and more scrap wood was tossed in to make the fire hotter. The lady with the shopping cart walked over to where the old man stood, his hands held up to the flames.
“Did you see the look on that congressman’s face when he tasted our supper?” she laughed.
“Sure did,” he said. “What did he think it was going to taste like? Chicken?”
The old man began to laugh, too. Soon, he was laughing even harder than the lady. He laughed so much, tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Soup from a stogie,” he said, roaring at the thought of Allmouth’s expression. “Imagine that!”