Free Food, Flowers From 83-Year-Old : Woman Hands Happiness to the Needy

Associated Press

To Pittsburgh's poor, aged, sick and homeless, the pearls of Pauline Waterman are received every day in the forms of a free doughnut, an unexpected poinsettia or a ticket to a show normally reserved for more fortunate folks.

At 83, Waterman hustles around town at a frantic pace, gathering half-price coupons for food or stashing away others' castoffs for those too tired or too old to roam.

Her daily ritual includes waiting outside a downtown bakery at 6:45 p.m. to claim the unsold doughnuts, muffins and cookies for the poor.

Cadging Free Tickets

But her highest self-appointed mission--and sharpest talent--is cadging free and reduced-price tickets for everything from ballet to boat rides.

The street people call her Mrs. Santa Claus. She said she is simply obsessed.

"All I do is run around with tickets, neglecting myself, because I can't stop," she said. "I'm like a drunkard who wants to stop drinking or someone who wants to stop smoking. And there's no way in the world at 83 that I can stop."

Waterman is spry and spunky. She has a 52-year-old daughter and four grandchildren, but they live far apart and seldom see one another.

A Bit Forgetful

She is hard of hearing and a bit forgetful, but she is unafraid to announce her feelings with the license that comes with age. Her skin and eyes are clear, her voice youthful and strong, and she said nothing ails her.

"She's always on the go," said Mae Caito, 76, who shares a cramped third-floor walk-up with her. "Even on the days she doesn't feel well, someone will call her and ask her for tickets for something, and she leaves everything and runs. She's out from morning until after midnight sometimes."

Waterman has taken thousands of people on riverboat rides, to circuses and ice shows at the Civic Arena, and to concerts and stage shows at luxurious Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts.

"It's for their morale," she said.

She once took dozens of handicapped children in wheelchairs to an evening of dinner and dancing on a riverboat cruise.

Dancing in the Cold

"It was freezing cold, nobody on the boat except these kids and a Dixieland band.. . . We wheeled them around to the music in their wheelchairs. And they had a wonderful time."

Waterman knows a man who likes potatoes, so she sent him a 2-for-1 coupon for stuffed baked potatoes at a fast-food restaurant.

In her purse is a half-written sympathy card destined for a woman whose daughter just died and a birthday card for a man "no one talks to."

Toilet paper rolls are saved for invalids at a state hospital, who use them to make Christmas candles. She collects ribbon for craft classes at another hospital.

Poinsettias for the Sick

A Roman Catholic priest gave her his church's poinsettias from Christmas, and Waterman distributed them to sick and elderly acquaintances.

As she eats, she squirrels things away for others. Leftover chicken or meat goes into a bag for her neighbor's puppy. The plastic utensils and plate from a center for the elderly are wiped clean to be used again.

"I don't waste a thing," she said.

Even her own body will be "recycled" when she dies.

"Instead of giving it to the worms, I'll give it to science," she said. "We'll take that money and give it to some poor kids instead of to the undertaker."

Her trademarks are an ill-fitting, sandy-colored wig that serves more as a hat than an adornment and a large tan coat that blankets her 98-pound, 4-foot-10-inch frame from head to ankles. Slung across her chest is her "office"--a brown vinyl shoulder bag containing her lists of reminders.

Looks Like Bag Lady

As she trudges through the slush on downtown sidewalks, lugging shopping bags filled with doughnuts or plastic utensils for the Salvation Army, Waterman looks more like a bag lady than a woman with a mission.

She gets angry if you tell her so. She refuses to be photographed.

"What does it matter how I look? It's what I do that counts," she said. "I look like something the cat dragged in because I never have time to take care of myself. I should have a hearing aid, I should have beautiful teeth, I should have beautiful clothes, and I don't have the time. It all takes time."

Her compassion comes from the heart, not from religious beliefs or lofty ideals about helping mankind.

"I don't do this to go to heaven. I don't believe in that baloney," she said. "I do this to make people happy while they're here."

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