Heather Clark slid the crisp bill from the envelope, her fingers tracing the shapes and outlines on the colorful note.

Gazing at the portrait of Ben Franklin, she wondered out loud whether it was real – Clark had never held a $100 bill in her life.

“I’m always poor,” said Clark, 48, who lives on $741 a month. “I might have seen it on TV, but never in my hand. This is really a blessing.”

Clark was waiting to board a bus for Belfast on Wednesday when a tall man strode through the automatic doors at the Portland Transportation Center, handing out envelopes stuffed with cash. His suit was red, his beard was white.

It was Secret Santa, the perennial, mysterious bringer of Christmas cheer who, for a few brief moments on Christmas Eve, bestowed on a few bewildered, weary travelers a little extra help to get through the holiday season.

For the past six Christmases, the covert Kris Kringle has doled out $20,000 in cash around Portland – $120,000 in all now. He hands envelopes to passersby, to charity workers, to ordinary folks riding a city bus – Secret Santa’s generosity does not discriminate.

Wednesday’s visit to the transportation center, the busy hub for bus and rail service in Portland, was his third venture of the year. On Monday, he boarded the No. 8 Metro bus at the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal stop in Portland and handed out cash as he rode across town to the Hannaford Plaza stop. On Tuesday, he headed north to Brunswick and distributed holiday cheer at a new Goodwill store.

Try refusing Santa’s gift, and the man behind the beard asks only that you “pay it forward.”

Some at the station said they would do just that.

Kathy and Katie Randall, mother and daughter, stood mystified as Santa gave them each a white envelope.

Each then turned to the other, smiling, searching for some explanation for what was happening.

Katie Randall, 18, is in her first year of college at the University of Tampa after attending Cheverus High School – two costly institutions.

She said she would give the $100 to her mother, who put her through high school and is helping her pay for her degree.

“I kind of owe her my life,” she said.

Her mother said she would either pay down some bills, or give the cash to her son, a recent college graduate with his own student loans to pay.

“It’s so needed,” Kathy Randall said.

Confusion was a popular reaction after Santa strode through the transportation center’s crowded waiting area.

Phil Innis was waiting to travel home to his mother’s house in Dedham, Massachusetts, when the lanky, cheerful Santa passed him by.

Innis thought at first that the man in suit was an Amtrak employee handing out coupons.

So he spoke up.

“I asked, ‘can I get two of those?’ ” Innis said, embarrassed at the thought. Santa handed him an envelope – one was enough.

Innis said he thinks it could be good karma somehow returning.

“I lent this kid from Massachusetts $100, and he skated on me,” Innis said. “So I guess it’s the universe working.”


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