BALTIMORE -- Today, as last year, as the year before, as the year before that, Bea Gaddy of Baltimore is having a little sit-down Thanksgiving dinner -- for about 12,000 people less fortunate than she. "Course, not all at one time," she says. "Tent's not big enough."

Once she rooted for scraps in metal bins behind North Carolina supermarkets. Once she went a year in a Baltimore row house without gas or electricity. Once she moved into the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 41st Street in New York and briefly called it home, or at least a roof. She's been a food-stamp mom and a welfare mom and a homeless mom. She's been a short-order cook and a school-crossing guard and a poultry-plant worker and a nurse's assistant and a human services staffer and a window washer at big houses in fine neighborhoods. You know this story: Been down so long, it looks like up to me. Except that Bea Gaddy isn't down anymore. She found the hole in the web of her life and slipped right through. Success ever since, though not the money kind. No, the funding for her various homeless causes in Baltimore will probably always be begged and borrowed and finagled and pinched and prayed for six ways to Sunday.

They call her the Guardian Angel of the Poor. They call her more than that. "Bea Gaddy is kind of our Mother Teresa," Linda Sherman, news director of Baltimore's WQSR, recently told Family Circle magazine. WQSR Radio is one of Bea Gaddy's major corporate sponsors.

Her annual Thanksgiving meal for Baltimore's poor began in 1981, when she served 39 people from her neighborhood with $290 in winnings from a 50-cent lottery ticket.

This year's "Thanks for Giving Campaign" (it has its own color-coded logo now) estimates that it'll have served 17,000 turkey meals to the needy, elderly, hungry and homeless by the time this day is over. If so, that'll be a record. Last year the Gaddy campaign served about 10,000 meals, and it was still thought to be the largest effort of its kind on the East Coast. Some 12,000 hungry are expected to show up today from 11 to 7 in a heated tent at Dunbar High School in East Baltimore. Another 5,000 meals will be carried to those who can't make it to the site. Gaddy herself expects to deliver some 600 hot meals.

"Got a van all set," she says. "First year I won't have to be over the stove the whole time."

Americans crave stats, especially stats having to do with bigness, so before going on, a few numbers connected with the Baltimore turkey feed of Beatrice Gaddy, once of Wake Forest, N.C., but now of North Collington Street on Butchers Hill.

Eighty tons of food! (More than 40,000 pounds of dry food, canned goods and so forth, came in Sunday. It was promoted on the radio as "The Sunday Drop.")

Thirty thousand paper plates!

Fifty cases of aluminum foil!

Two thousand pumpkin pies!

One hundred cases of sweet potatoes!

Turkeys? About 1,800, or at least that was the early count. The year's campaign is actually overrun with turkeys. The folks at Perdue Farms have given 700. About 200 birds have been precooked by pre-release inmates at one of the city's prisons. (Smart-aleck question: If you laid 1,800 turkeys end to end, drumstick to drumstick, how far would they reach?)

CBS's "This Morning" is scheduled to do a live segment from Dunbar High at 7:10 this morning. Monitor Radio will beam a pretaped interview to 100 stations around the country and on shortwave to foreign countries and maybe selected ships at sea. George Bush has sent regrets. "One of those typical nice Dear John letters saying he couldn't come," Gaddy says. "But I appreciated it."

In the words of the Baltimore Sun, this "may be the biggest Thanksgiving dinner in the world."

This woman is 58 years old. This woman has a ballpoint stuck in her coil of thick dark hair. This woman has a man's thick blunt hands. This woman has a sly sense of humor.

"I won't get in a limousine unless it's for a good purpose," she says.

She was in a limousine a couple weeks ago. It was the "Jenny Jones" show out of Chicago. Jones's people saw the feature story on Baltimore's guardian angel in Family Circle ("Women Who Make a Difference"), and the next thing Gaddy knew she was on an airliner to Chicago, and then she was being limoed to the Loop for the taping. She wondered for a second if she could get in the thing, not being used to cars that look like boats.

"The article came out on a Tuesday. I think she was in Chicago a couple days later," says Ed Segal. Segal is Bea Gaddy's pro bono Washington PR man. You get this big, you gotta have publicity machines. Today, foregoing their Georgetown table, Segal and his wife will be helping to put out thousands of servings of bread and rolls on tables at Dunbar High. He's been bitten by the Gaddy goodness bug. "I've got lots of clients," he says. "None like Bea."

"First time I've ever been there," Gaddy says, speaking of the Chicago fly-in. (It'll be aired Tuesday.) "It was rainy, cold, windy. Just stayed a few hours. I enjoyed seeing the riches -- at the NBC building and so on. The food was sure cheap."

Maybe she means the food in the studio's cafeteria.

"Came back home that night," she says. "Had work to do." She came back by train. Those air bumps on the way out were getting to her.

Wouldn't all this attention tend to set a head spinning?

"No sir, nothing like that," she says. "I'm still Bea Gaddy. I'm not anything bigger. Look at me. I'm still wearing secondhand clothes. If I had a million dollars I'd say to the mayor, 'Let's try to heal some of this hurt.' "

Mayor Kurt Schmoke helped out last year, rolled up his sleeves and worked alongside all the other volunteers. They expect him at this year's dinner too.

There are clowns coming today, supposed to be anyway. And magicians. And a gospel choir. "If they show up. I hope, I hope," she says, sounding like a kid at Christmas hoping for toy trains under the tree.

All of the donations -- the food, the volunteers, the yearlong planning and organizing effort -- come from private and corporate sources.

"You know, I never expected it to grow so fast," she says quietly.

But then she says, jabbing the air with her short muscular arms, "Feed that person, clothe that person, but most of all give that person back his self-respect. That's what we're doing. It's a year-round commitment."

Carolina Origins

How did she get from there to here? Gaddy has answers, but it's as if they're in code. She'll talk of her life, but in fragments, as if that's the only way she can bear the facts. What you get, even from the code, is enough grit and regret for a passel of lives.

One of her earliest childhood memories is of rooting through garbage cans in Wake Forest, which is 16 miles north of Raleigh. She once told a reporter about Christmas 1938, when she was 5: "I woke up and there was nothing. Nothing at all. There was no tree, no presents, not even any food. Yessir, that was back in North Carolina in the year of 1938."

She says it was a broken, abandoned, abused family. There was a drunken stepfather. "He ran us behind these stores," she says. "To find food."

She married early: the old tale, the dreamed-for ticket out. Eventually she got to New York, where there was a brother. Her first husband, a good man but a man without means or dreams, got murdered by a distant cousin. It was on a trip back home, and the cousin didn't want him to return to Gaddy. "Too much to go into," she says with a weary wave.

The point is, she was suddenly the husbandless mother of five. She found work and she lost work. She was a woman bereft in the North, where it's so cold. At various points, of necessity, her children came in and out of her life. For a time she worked for a doctor. "Slept in," she says, which is to say got room and some board.

The jobs came and went. She was back fighting for food at Brooklyn dumpsters. "My head wasn't on right," she says. "I wasn't a drinker, I wasn't a drugger." She lived for a spell in an all-night restaurant. She walked away from a flat because she knew the sheriff was coming to put her things out on the sidewalk and it was less crushing that way. She explains the logic of this.

"Easier to walk away," she says. "I can say it now. 'Cause I've started over many times. It just hurts so much to see that sheriff come and take all your stuff and set it outside in the streets. So humiliating. I've seen seven families put out on one block. Since I've been in Baltimore, I've never been put out."

And then, "I never foresaw myself as a leader fighting hunger and poverty," she says. "Because during that time I was fighting hate. And bitterness. That was your enemy. You're fighting all the hate inside you because other people have a real father and you don't -- things like that."

Helping Hands

There are two Bea Gaddy angels. One is Elvis Lee Allen and the other is Bernard Potts.

Bunkered with two of her five children, a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old, into a space of stale air at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Bea Gaddy remembered that name: Elvis Lee Allen. It seemed to drop out of Heaven. This was in 1964. He was a man from back home and she remembered he was in Baltimore. She'd never been to Baltimore. She called the operator and found his number. "It wasn't inspiration," she says. "It was desperation." He sent them bus tickets, no questions asked. He put them up in a room on Calhoun Street. And he wasn't a rich man.

"He's dead now," she says. "But he's part of the reason I'm giving something back."

There were plenty more dark years ahead, but to compress this, in 1974, working in Baltimore as a crossing guard at Broadway and Orleans, School 453, Bea Gaddy met her second angel. Bernard Potts was and is a Baltimore businessman, a lawyer-accountant.

"I got to know him," she says. "I'd go in his building to warm myself. We'd talk. He got me to go to school, get a degree. He got me to believe in myself. He advised me. It started there. He's the father, really he's the grandfather, I never had." Out of this chance encounter came the eventual strength and vision to found an East Baltimore row house soup kitchen. It's called the Patterson Park Emergency Food Center. It's the centerpiece of all her works. Bea Gaddy lives in the basement of this row house -- which she has mortgaged twice -- on a block that's now being gentrified but still has the homeless coming down the alley and through the back gate for breakfast or lunch or supper at Bea's. She has her TV and her Wall Street Journal in the basement, where you have to duck your head so you won't hit the pipes. Every day of the year, not just Thanksgiving, Bea's hungry come. They start at 7 in the morning. Sometimes the house isn't cleared till 11 at night.

In 1979, Gaddy married Lacy Gaddy. He has been supportive of her work, but they have lived some of the last years apart.

Bernard Potts, who helped finance the tuition for Gaddy's bachelor's degree in human services at Antioch University's campus in Baltimore, and who continues as her informal legal and emotional adviser, will spend part of today working at Bea's feed at Dunbar. He's 79. He spent part of yesterday trying to come up with a golf cart to shuttle some of the organizers around.

"You find a woman like this, this kind of potential, you don't want to give up on her," he says. "I could tell it from the start. Maybe it came from picking jurors, I don't know. I saw it. All I had to do was give it an opening. She means what she says and she says what she means. Of course, she still wants it all done right away."

In the Joint

"The toughness," she is saying. "So many of them wear this toughness to hide that hurt. A man came in yesterday {to the row house}. He had a dark look. 'I want some food!' he growled. I took him aside. 'You don't have to talk like that. You're at Bea's now.' See, you've lost everything in the world when you're standing in that line, much less come inside. The hardest part is when they come the first time. They're so apologetic. 'Miss Bea, I'm sorry, I'm sorry I'm here.' And I say, 'Now, you just forget that. You're at Miss Bea's now. Your need is as great as anybody else's.' "

She's saying this in a car on her way to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. It's two days before Thanksgiving. Some of the inmates, who've formed a Jaycees club from behind the walls, are going to give her a $500 check for the 1991 campaign.

She doesn't have an ID. Which ordinarily would present a huge problem. But the guards at the gate let her in anyway. "We all know you from TV," one of them says, embracing her.

"You coming to work for us on Thursday?" she says, ever the recruiter.

"Got to cook for my own family," the guard says.

Inside, she tells some sad-faced women sitting around a table, "I'll be there when you leave here. ... As women we've sat too long. We've taken too much. We don't have to live with men who abuse us."

For a flicker-flash, these women, applauding now, don't seem so oppressed.

Another Kind of Pain

Empowerment has its prices. She is asked whether she feels anger at men, and if this has hindered any lasting inner peace. She seems way ahead of the question.

"Somewhat, somewhat," she says. "Children on the corner are there because the men walked away. And now these men are either locked up or dead. Yes, I've been mistreated by a lot of them in my life. I have found in my life that men respected me as long as I was dumb. I have had men throw me up the stairs, throw me down the stairs. But when I got the beer bottles and started throwing them back, then that made it all different."

Pause. "I think I run men away too. Because, you know, you become bossy."

True Grit

Back in the car, leaving Jessup, headed toward the city again, the giver of meals and courage, a woman once lost but now found, a woman unable to conceal her human pride in the way she just wowed them back there at the prison, says: "I'm hoping from all this publicity that somebody will rise up and say, 'Let's give this talking woman what she needs so she can shut up.' "

And then she hoots.