Published: 12/26/2003

Page: A1

Brent D. Wistrom

Times Record News

It used to be a day when Grandma served duck stuffed with wild rice and smothered in oyster dressing just for him. It was a meal for two, cooked for about six hours and followed by banana pudding, chocolate cake and homemade ice cream. He would get so full – but he’d let out a little belch and realize there was room for a little more.

It was soul food on Christmas Day, and it still brings a smile to Wayne Hunter’s face 25 years after the last spoonful.

But since his grandmother, Electra Faye Burnett, passed away in 1979, two weeks before Christmas, and one of his brothers landed in prison four years ago, holidays come and go like other days – days passed alone, hustling for a few dollars to buy something cheap and filling. It doesn’t get any easier through the years.

“When you tell yourself it doesn’t matter, it’s a lie,” said Hunter, who also spends Thanksgiving, Easter and his birthday alone. “It’s a bold-faced lie. You know how you feel when you’re alone. “I love it that the Lord was born today, but for me it’s still just another day.”

Hunter, 42, is a self-described “jack of all trades, master of none.” Most of his dollars come from detailing cars in a car wash on Eastside Drive.  He spends modestly on an efficiency apartment and light meals. On Christmas Eve, he bought two hot dogs with mayo and onions for 97 cents at a gas station. It was his first meal in nearly two days.

He walked from street to street, shelter to shelter Thursday looking for a bite. He missed the Faith Mission’s meal by half an hour and came too early to the Elks Lodge.  They offered to feed him later, but he wanted to find his sister – the only of his five siblings in the area.  No luck.

Without an address, seeing her was unlikely from the start.

But on Holmes Street he crossed paths with another man who, for different reasons, was also alone and hungry. They had Christmas dinner at the China Star.

The best way to get through the holidays is through the past, Hunter said.  “It’s Christmas,” he said. “You get all this food and the kids … they rip into those presents and their faces just light up.  “You know, especially if it’s their first Christmas and they’re just figuring out, ‘Oh, I get stuff on this day … OK, OK, OK, I like this.’ And their faces just light up when they get into those presents. They just gotta know what’s in there. I guess I used to be like that too.”

Hunter grew up in the Bailey Street Projects with his grandmother. His mother, who had her only son, Hunter, when she was 16, tried to play a role in his life, but they only saw each other occasionally. His father, who had five children, was never there.

Hunter, now a tall, slender man with deep-set eyes and a slow-motion smile, said he was the biggest kid in class through his freshman year – thanks to grandma’s cooking. He lived in Austin for about 10 years before returning to Wichita Falls to stay with his brother.

As Christmas grew dimmer Thursday, he planned to work at the car wash again – as he did last year. Then, he wanted to relax at his apartment.   With a little extra money comes a little more hope and another day – just like Christmas.