Warning: If you think you may be on William Alston's Christmas list this year, read no further.
It's not a long list, but it's a special one, because it's Alston's first. At 21, Alston has never had a chance to go Christmas shopping with money he earned on his own.
Last night, with $45 in the breast pocket of his green plaid work shirt, Alston set out for Golden Ring Mall with Patricia "Trish" Gounaris, his supervisor from East Baltimore Resources, Inc., a non-profit agency that specializes in placing the mentally disabled.
"It's nice to shop, I love it," Alston said, easily the most cheerful person in the throng of harried Christmas shoppers. "I love every drop of it."
Long lines, rude store clerks, crowded stores -- it all rolled off Alston's back as he moved through the mall.
"Do I believe in Santa?" Alston asked when he stopped near his booth. "I love him. All I want from him is a car and I'll be a happy boy."
Tests say Alston is mentally impaired. Gounaris doesn't believe it. "I'd like to get him tested again," she said. "I think he'd do much better."
This summer, East Baltimore Resources placed Alston in a custodial job at Kennedy Institute. Although the agency's clients typically require intensive training by a job "coach" -- an agency employee who learns the job along with the client, then teaches it to him step by step -- Alston mastered his job with alacrity, Gounaris said.
The $90 he grosses each week for his 20 hours of work represents the first salary he has ever earned. Alston usually spends it as quickly as he gets it -- on food, cigarettes, going to clubs -- but he managed to hoard $45 of this week's salary for his shopping trip.
Alston may have been new to Christmas shopping, but he quickly took to what has become one of its newer customs: One for him, one for me.
So when he went to a toy store to pick out a Pontiac Grand Prix model car set for his 9-year-old nephew, he decided to pick up one for himself as well, a Pontiac Firebird.
And when he went to a department store to look at clothes for his 11-year-old niece, Alston ended up with a pair of black Levi's that fit him perfectly.
"Gotta wear black," he said, as he modeled them. "That's my color."
Alston lives with a cousin in an East Baltimore rowhouse, but he's seldom home. An indefatigable walker, he roams his neighborhood, visiting relatives and friends. Sometimes, he walks to West Baltimore and back -- just because he feels like it.
His joy in everything he sees is infectious; Gounaris has caught it. While the two have known each other less than six months, they tease and banter like friends of long-standing.
"At my work, you sometimes have favorites," Gounaris said. "Well, he's definitely one of my favorites."
Gounaris is on Alston's Christmas list, but he had to wait for another trip before he picks that gift out. He also has one gift he could not purchase last night -- a gift for someone who will never see it, yet the most important gift of all to Alston.
"I want to buy roses to lay on my mother's grave," he said. "Fresh ones. White ones, red ones -- whatever I can find."
His mother, Beatrice Austin, died of carbon monoxide poisoning when Alston was 6. Her grave in Arbutus Memorial Park is marked by a simple round disc, he said. One day, he would like to replace that with a marker, but for now he will settle for roses, as many as he can afford.
"The day after Thanksgiving, I walked down the street and cried, thinking of my mother," he said. "People saw me -- I guess they didn't know what to think, the tears running down my face."
Shortly after that, Alston went to Gounaris and told her how much he wanted to go Christmas shopping this year.
Alston's face, usually so bright and animated, darkened at the memory, then brightened again. "I'm just happy to see another Christmas, myself, you know," he said. "Some people don't see this. As long as I work, keep going, keep making money, keep living every day -- that's the best way to live your life."