When his parents split up in 1985, Scott Macaulay chose to spend Thanksgiving with 12 strangers instead of his bickering family.
“I was still living at home, so what do you do on Thanksgiving if nobody’s talking to each other?” the vacuum repairman tells us. “Dad got the boot and Ma was pissed off. My sister was away in college, so what was going to happen on Thanksgiving?” Macaulay, from Melrose, Mass., says the day before Thanksgiving.
“I’m a person who doesn’t like to eat alone — I think it’s kind of depressing — and so I said, ‘Oh gee, I don’t think I want to spend Thanksgiving by myself.’ So there was a local paper, the Melrose Free Press, and I put an ad in it that said I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner for up to 12 people that might find themselves alone for some particular reason,” Macaulay, who was in his early 20s at the time, recalls. “And 12 people signed up, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
This will be the 33rd time Macaulay has hosted a free Thanksgiving dinner for strays at the Green Street Baptist Church.
He chose the church because he was an active member, and “I couldn’t do it at the house with everybody mad at everybody,” he says, laughing.
The event has grown in popularity since the inaugural feast. Sixty-one people have signed up for this year’s dinner so far, and he’s sure that number will grow. Especially since eight years ago he hosted 95 people. “That was the 25th year. People came from Boston; that year was nice,” he recalls.
Those interested are supposed to call by the Monday before Thanksgiving, so that Macaulay has enough time to shop and plan — “otherwise it’s total chaos,” he says. Macaulay doesn’t have a computer, cell phone or answering machine, so to reserve a seat at the dinner, people have to call his home and hope the line isn’t busy with other eager diners.
“I had eight people sign up today; the deadline was Monday,” the 57-year-old says. “Right there’s eight people more than expected. So I have a fudge factor because it happens every year. Some people are just going to show up without a reservation, and I’m certainly not going to kick them out. If they took the time to show up, guess what? They’re gonna get something to eat!”
Macaulay cooks all the food in the church’s big kitchen, and his 22-year-old son, Walter, helps him serve and clean up, according to the Washington Post. “Thanksgiving’s really easy: You kind of just throw the bird in the oven and it’s gotta sit there for three or four hours, so what do you do in the meantime? You peel the squash, you peel the potatoes,” he says. “You gotta do something while those things are cooking.” He draws the line at dessert. “I don’t do the baked goods; I buy that stuff.”
But it’s not at all about the food, Macaulay insists. “It’s about not having to sit at home with a Styrofoam container with their dinner in it.” That’s why he brings more than a meal. “It’s supposed to look like a house,” he explains. “So I bring in three fake fireplaces, a fake stove, an Oriental rug, couches, candles, to make it look like somebody’s house.” He didn’t always do this; at the beginning, he just made sure to have a nice table setting and a little place for people to gather before and after the meal. “Because it’s not about the food, it’s about having a place to hang around. You don’t want to eat and just run out.”
The meal starts at 1 p.m., but people arrive as early as 10 a.m. for this famed gathering. “I have the coffeepot on; they’ll look at pictures of the previous years and see if they can find themselves, and just sit around.” And people linger. “Sometimes I’m shutting off the lights at 9 o’clock at night and saying, ‘Gee, ya know, I gotta go home,’” he says, laughing.
“I remember one year, a couple, they had both lost their jobs and they had two kids; it took them, like, an hour and a half to get here,” he recalls. “They showed up at 4:30 p.m., and I said, ‘A lot of people are gone already. There isn’t much left, but we’ll figure something out. Take your coat off and sit down.’ And we found something for them to eat.”
Macaulay won’t turn anyone away. Not even his ex-wife. According to the Washington Post, a few years ago his ex-wife walked in with her new husband and played the piano while everyone else ate.
One year, his parents even showed up. His mother was dying of breast cancer and wanted to be with family, and his father felt the same, the Post reports.
“There they were, sitting on the couch together,” he said, “holding each other’s hand, years after their divorce. I can still see them sitting there. That’s a happy memory.”
Now that it’s become such a hot-ticket event, Macaulay doesn’t spend much time at the table with the guests. “It’s blossomed into a little bit more work,” he says. “When you’ve got 12, you’re sitting around the table.” These days, he’s busy in the kitchen “trying to get the food out.”
So he gets to know his guests through a Thanksgiving tradition. “It’s Thanksgiving, you’re supposed to be giving thanks, so every year I have them say what they are thankful for,” he shares. “Sometimes they yell it out, sometimes they write it on a blackboard or pieces of paper, or you put it in a basket.” This year, he’s made little turkey feathers. “They can write down what they are thankful for, put it on the turkey feather and then put it on a turkey. You can get to know people that way.”
And there’s always someone for him to get to know. Macaulay tells Yahoo Lifestyle that he’s the only one who’s been around since the beginning. “Well, it’s a changing population, so in other words, a lot of the people that came last year won’t be here this year,” he says. This year, a few of the regulars went into assisted living and nursing homes. “One of them actually died after she signed up for the dinner,” he recalls. “Just a few weeks ago, she fell down and went out of the senior citizen place laughing and joking with the EMTs, but apparently her heart stopped in the ambulance,” he says. “So she’s not coming; that’s gonna be the first time in a long time.” Most of the guests come alone — “That’s the idea of it,” Macaulay says — but now and then he gets a couple.
“It’s always a rotating group,” he says. “They get divorced or married, or they lose a spouse, or they die, or they graduate from college, or they get to know people in the community. There’re different reasons why people come, and when those reasons change, they don’t come,” he explains. “You’re always getting new people who’ve just moved to town, or just lost a spouse, or just started college. And then when something changes, they stop coming.”
And he’s OK with that. “If at some point nobody signs up, I won’t have to do it anymore because everybody’s got a place to go,” he reasons.
“I make a joke that I’m a crotchety old man that doesn’t want to eat alone, but I just feel that’s the truth,” he says of why he does it year after year. “I don’t like to eat alone, I think probably other people feel the same way, so every year I put it out there for people to join me and they do,” he adds. “I just want to make sure people who might find themselves alone don’t have to be.”
Macaulay hopes his idea spreads. “I think if everybody had somebody that did it in their town, the world would be a better place, at least on one day of the year, anyway,” he says, laughing.
“I’m a guy here who fixes vacuums on a corner. My philosophy is, brighten the corner where you are — it’s the title of an old hymn. So I try to brighten the corner where I am, and this Thanksgiving dinner is just a way I try to do that.” It seems like he’s brightening much more than his corner.