No one was quite sure what to make of the woman in a red beret surrounded by police and firefighters.
She prompted quizzical and sometimes worried expressions as she approached people out of nowhere at laundromats, thrift stores, doorsteps, bus stops and wherever else she suspected someone was in need.
For the third year in a row, this anonymous "Secret Santa" handed out $100 bills to dozens of people in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
She began the conversations with a question.
"Have you ever heard of Secret Santa?" she asked.
Most simply shook their heads.
Then she showed them the money.
The curious looks transformed into smiles, laughter — and tears.
In the case of Lakeisha Starks, the $100 bill was accompanied by another.
"Oh, I'm going to cry," Starks, 20, said. "Thank you. Thank you so much."
Starks sat on a concrete retaining wall in Pine Lawn off Natural Bridge Road. In her arms, she held her 1-year-old son, Calvin. She was waiting for a bus to take him to a doctor in St. Louis. She said she would use the money to buy Christmas presents for Calvin and her daughter, Camora.
The tradition of anonymously handing out $100 bills began three decades ago in Kansas City with local businessman Larry Stewart, who refused to reveal his identity until just before his death in 2007.
The acts of generosity have since spread to three cities in the Kansas City area — Leavenworth, Kan., Grandview, Mo., and Independence, Mo. — and beyond. There are now "Secret Santas" in Detroit, Phoenix, Charlotte, N.C., and Canada.
The St. Louis Santa declined to say exactly how much she handed out this year. But it seems safe to say it was several thousand dollars. Her daughter and a family friend accompanied her and also handed out money.
The firefighters and police provided guidance and protection. The loose-knit society Stewart began has a few unwritten rules, and one is to keep safe. So far, it's been a good strategy.
"The worst thing that has happened is a couple of people have given the money back," said Pat O'Neill, a volunteer spokesman for the country's Secret Santas based in Kansas City.
The St. Louis Santa's first stop was at the Cool Valley home of Minnie Rodgers. A local pastor had told the firefighters that Rodgers was in need; the woman gave her $300.
"The only thing we ask is that you share a random act of kindness with somebody," the Secret Santa said. "Just pay it forward. It doesn't have to be money."
"Oh, yes," said Rodgers, nodding.
The anonymous woman found Vivian Houston just in time at a laundromat on Martin Luther King Drive. Houston said her electricity was only days from being shut off. She owed $242, and couldn't afford to pay, but the $100 would definitely help.
"This is a miracle," she said.
Santa's identity is a closely guarded secret. Any breach in anonymity would damage the spirit of the practice. So she uses blocked phone numbers and won't say where she lives nor how she has made her money.
"For the most part, my family doesn't know," she said.
She ended her giving spree by giving $100 to Joshua Israel, 45, whom she spotted airing up the tires of his bicycle at a QuikTrip in St. Ann. Israel is unemployed and was getting change at the convenience store to do laundry.
"I can't believe it," he said. "I got $100."
Israel said he didn't work because he was mentally disabled. When asked what he would do with the money, he gave the most unique answer of the day.
"Save and invest."