READING, Pa. — Sitting in Reading's Inter-City Bus Terminal on Tuesday night, Thomas Coates Jr. was out of work and out of hope.
Then, out of the blue, a stranger sat next to him and restored his faith in human kindness.
Identifying himself only as Secret Santa, the stranger handed Coates two crisp $100 bills and wished him a Merry Christmas.
Coates, 36, who lives in Pottstown with his girlfriend and son, wept.
"I was brought up to believe that you take care of your family, but I can't find a job," said Coates, burying his face in his hands. "This man said to me, 'You're a good man,' and it felt good to hear that."
The bus terminal was only one stop on a whirlwind tour of downtown Reading and beyond, where Secret Santa handed $100 bills to people he felt needed a helping hand at Christmastime.
In all, he gave away an estimated $20,000 of his own money, mostly in $100 bills stamped "Secret Santa" in red.
He had read of Reading being designated America's poorest city with a population of 65,000 or more.
"Cities like Reading are experiencing tough economic times," Secret Santa said. "It's time for us to step up, not step back."
Insisting on anonymity, he identified himself only as a businessman who travels a lot.
The current Secret Santa is continuing a tradition begun by the late Larry Stewart in Kansas City, Kan.
Stewart had once been down and out and received a handout from the owner of the Dixie Diner in Houston, Miss.
Although he went on to make millions in cable television, Stewart never forgot the kindness. Posing as Secret Santa, he gave away $1.3 million over 25 years until his death in 2006.
"I promised him on his deathbed that I would continue the tradition of Secret Santa," the current Santa said.
Secret Santa will visit cities ranging from San Diego to Detroit in the coming weeks, enlisting the help of "elves" like NFL great Dick Butkus and comedian Larry the Cable Guy.
Police Chief William M. Heim said the department was contacted by Secret Santa, who asked for assistance. Capt. Stephen Powell and Officers Jackie Flanagan and Chris DeCarlo were assigned to escort duty.
Riding in a Reading police cruiser, Secret Santa's "Sleigh Ride" meandered through the narrow streets off the city's downtown district.
After stops that included the Salvation Army, the BARTA bus terminal and the Naber-Hood Laundromat at Eighth and Chestnut streets, he dropped in at the Queen City Diner and Goodwill Retail Store on Lancaster Avenue in Cumru Township.
"I'm swearing you in as one of Secret Santa's elves," he said as he handed $100 to Keith Grumbling, 52, at the coin laundry. "Between now and Christmas, I want you to do something nice for somebody else."
The real message of Secret Santa, he said, is that others should follow his example and do random acts of kindness during the Christmas season.
In the BARTA terminal, Janet Ormsbee of Reading had a dollar to her name when a guy wearing a red hat and red jacket approached her.
She had never heard of Secret Santa but will never forget him or the $100 he gave her.
"God bless you, sweetie," he said, throwing his arms around her.
Ormsbee, 69, who is unable to work, was overcome.
"Oh, my God," she sighed. "It's Christmas."
At the Salvation Army, Secret Santa handed $100 bills to volunteers, children, a dishwasher and a housekeeper.
Leaving the building, he encountered a woman waiting in the rain to pick up her children from an after-school program.
"How many children do you have?" he asked.
"Six," replied Elizabeth Colon, 37, of Reading.
"You have six children?" he repeated. "Well, here, one hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, five hundred, six hundred — a hundred for each child."
"It's nice to have some money to buy Christmas presents for the children," Colon said.
Her 9-year-old son, Alejandro, grinned ear to ear.
"I think we will have a happy Christmas," he said.
In the Inter-City Bus Terminal, T.J. Palazzo, 27, of Reading was waiting for a bus to take him to his mother's home in Virginia.
She's ill, he's unemployed and the future looked dim.
After buying bus tickets, Palazzo had $3 in his pocket when Secret Santa peeled off two $100 bills and handed them to him.
"I was wondering how I was going to eat from here to Virginia on $3," he said afterward. "It's like a blessing from above. God must really answer your prayers."
Sitting nearby was Lara Walkoff, 24, a medical student at George Washington University who had been to Reading Hospital for a job interview.
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Santa sat next to her, chatted briefly and gave her $100.
Walkoff, who's from Florida, had never heard of anything like it.
"I'm sure there are a lot of people who can use the money," she said.
And, as a medical student who's graduating in May, she could certainly use the cash.
"I don't have a lot of money; that's why I'm riding the bus," she confided. "But I think I will find someone who needs this $100 more than I do."
Secret Santa would be proud.
Information from: Reading Eagle, http://www.readingeagle.com/