At a few minutes past noon yesterday, the line for giveaway chickens, gift-wrapped toys, blankets, diapers and whatever else that Bea Gaddy, the diminutive philanthropist of East Baltimore, could gather, stretched all the way around the corner.
But pushing and shoving began in earnest in the 2100 block of East Fayette Street when word trickled through the crowd of hundreds that Ms. Gaddy was giving out cash for the first time in her 10 years of organizing relief drives.
Aided by a burly Baltimore police officer, who pressed 65 $20 bills into so many outstretched hands, Ms. Gaddy gave away $1,300 -- money her relief effort received from private donations.
"That 20 dollars will help them buy a turkey or buy some chicken," said Ms. Gaddy, who also had gathered 60,000 pounds of food and hundreds of donated gifts to distribute from her Patterson Park Emergency Food Center at 140 N. Collington Ave. "They'll spend it right, I'm sure."
Poverty haunts the neighborhood around the food center, a row house turned soup kitchen and food warehouse that is the headquarters for Ms. Gaddy's good deeds. Many of the more than 30,000 people listed as jobless in Baltimore's latest unemployment figures live in the mean, drafty two-story row houses near the food center.
Yesterday, there was desperation in the faces of those waiting in line for food, or perhaps a little cash.
One man wearing a thin denim jacket and a hooded sweat shirt to ward off a chilling breeze looked on imploringly, sheepishly waving a welfare eligibility card as proof that he needed the money. He was told only women would be given cash.
A child waiting with her mother for a chance at a $20 gift let forth twin streams of tears, no longer able to withstand the cold. And one woman cursed menacingly after being jostled from behind by people surging forward in hopes of receiving one of the dwindling number of $20 bills.
Ms. Gaddy, the woman at the center of the surge of humanity, began feeding strangers in 1981, when she won $290 on a 50-cent lottery ticket. She treated 39 people who couldn't afford a Thanksgiving dinner.
She is no stranger to poverty or hunger, having been touched by those twin traumas while growing up in North Carolina and, again, while raising five children of her own after she was widowed.
Yesterday, she assembled about 20 volunteers to help distribute 60,000 pounds of food, much of it donated by large supermarkets. Private individuals also did their share. Many of them arrived throughout the day at the Collington Street address to unload canned goods by the trunkful.
Mark Tidgewell, who lives in a comfortable home in Columbia, was one of the volunteers. He brought his wife and four children to the impoverished milieu of East Baltimore to sort chickens, canned beans and other grocery items into bags that were given away.
Mr. Tidgewell, a financial manager, said he volunteered in part to teach values to his children. His 15-year-old daughter, Dana, acknowledged that her own needs pale in comparison to those who came for food yesterday.
"I'm always complaining that I don't have enough stuff, that I don't have anything to wear," said Dana, who last year flew to Honduras to volunteer in a dental clinic. "This is a great thing to do."
Melody Walker-Bey, a grandmother with two small children of her own, was one of the people who waited for the food the Tidgewell's helped bag. She and her children walked all the way from the 1400 block of Division Street in West Baltimore just for the chance to bring home a bag of groceries. Unaware until she arrived that cash would also be given away, Ms. Walker-Bey was about four places away when the money ran out.
She had hoped to take home a blanket, but they, too, were gone. Instead, she focused her hopes on getting a few bus tokens so she and her children would not have to make the long walk back home.
"Money wasn't what I was looking for," said Ms. Walker-Bey, who said a bag of food and perhaps a few toys would be a welcome gift. "We have a blinking red lamp that is our Christmas tree, but that's OK. These kinds of Christmases make you strong."