Three Nights in a Shelter
Irving A. Greenfield
Irving A. Greenfield
Irving A. Greenfield spent two years in the Merchant Marine and fought in the Korean War. He has published several novels, including Tagget, which was produced as a TV film. His video play, "Camp #2, Bucharest," won a NOVA for the best drama of 1998 on Community Access TV. He was one of the five nominated winners of the Yukon Pacific Play Award for his one act play, "Billy," which was produced for Public Access TV and became a successful Off Off Broadway production. His play, "Entitlement," was produced at The Studio Theater in New York, and three one-act plays were produced there in April 2004. His most recent full-length play, "What Do We Do About Walter," was produced at the American Theatre of Actors in 2003. His novels Snow Giants Dancing, Only the Dead Speak Russian, and Beyond Valor are available from Amazon on Kindle. Several of his short stories have been published in Amarillo Bay.
He was older than she was. It was clear theirs was a second marriage. She was a comely looking woman, well dressed with a mink trimmed hat. He wore jeans, a long sleeved sweater over a white shirt and a three quarter length leather coat. He was considerably taller than she, and had a full head of white hair. She was crying and showing everyone their wedding picture. He was obviously in the military when it was taken. He was in uniform and had a chest full of medals.
Exactly why she thought it necessary to show that photograph was an indication of her feelings about where they were, and about where she thought the people in the shelter were, relative to her. They were beneath her and the possibility that she might have to spend time among them had brought her to tears.
They were assigned the two beds next to my wife, Anita. The woman showed her the photograph; then showed it to me, still in tears. The man introduced himself. His name was Henry; hers was Dominique. They lived in Bell Harbor, an area in the Rockaways that was being pounded by hurricane Sandy. I didn't ask why they were in the city during the storm or how they happened to land in the shelter located in Hunter College's gymnasium. None of my business.
Anita and I are octogenarians. Neither of us wanted to be in the shelter. But we were evacuated from our building in the Battery Park area because it was considered vulnerable to both a power loss and a surge from the nearby Hudson River. What Dominique and Harry saw was a couple of hundred beds with people in them, some completely covered from head to toe with a blue emergency blanket, others sitting up and a few huddled together in conversation. But most of the people were not the kind of people that Dominique was used to; these were obviously street people, and many were black or Hispanic. They were from the lower rungs. How could she possibly sleep amongst them?
Dominique was acting like a spoiled child. Ordinarily, I have no patience with that kind of behavior, but now something else was added to my lack of sympathy, pique. I was offended by her attitude. Anita and I were part of the mix of people there, and all of us needed the same things: a safe place, food, and water. It was an egalitarian society. The staff treated everyone the same way: with kindness and concern. I was insulted by Dominique's attitude. It showed a profound disrespect for people whom she perceived as being different from herself. The same wasn't true of her husband. More rational than emotional, he was willing to stay. But he was hammered by his young wife and eventually succumbed. They left.
This occurred the second night Anita and I were in the shelter.
# # #
We arrived at the Hunter College shelter on Sunday at about nine o'clock at night. Brought there by four firemen after having been told there weren't any more beds available at Baruch College, our second stop, after leaving the apartment. The first stop was to pick up another evacuee, who refused to be evacuated.
In the college's lobby, we signed in. Many college security people and police officers walked back and forth. The firemen escorted us down to the B4 level, the gymnasium. I was dazed by the rapidity of what had happened and the circumstances we were now in. Only a few hours before, we were informed that our building would be evacuated. But Anita and I had decided to stay. During hurricane Irene, we did evacuate and went to Anita's brother in Fairfield, Connecticut. The storm caused him to lose power, while our building was untouched. We returned home as quickly as possible. We were determined not to repeat the same fiasco. I imagine that the gods must have laughed at our resolve to stay put.
My youngest son, Nathan, who lives in Canada, was scheduled for back surgery on Monday and did not want to worry about his parents, so he contacted my oldest son, Richard, who lives in Japan and told him to arrange for our evacuation. Richard, adapt at dealing with official red tape, made a few phone calls, the result of which put four firemen at our door twenty minutes later. Shortly, we were on a big yellow bus heading for a shelter.
In the shelter, we were handed blue blankets and a packet of toilet articles, then assigned to two beds very close to the front of the gymnasium. The doors were located nearby as well as the tables where staff dispensed food and water. The beds, more like chaise lounges, came with adjustable backs and thin mattresses. The blankets were also thin and had the state logo printed on them. All of the lights were on, and they would remain on all night.
The place reminded me of a military installation; there were many rows of sleeping bodies and it was quiet. We sat on the beds facing each other. Anita looked harried, maybe even frightened. I know I looked harried because I felt I was, but I was not frightened.
Anita said that we did it for Nathan, meaning that we were there because we wanted Nathan to have one less thing to worry about before and after his surgery.
A woman, whose name was Mary and who wore a yellow nylon vest, the mark of a supervisor - - the other staff members wore orange colored vests - - came over to us and said food and water were available at the tables. When we told her where we lived, she said the area had already lost power and fifteen to eighteen feet of water was expected to strike that part of lower Manhattan. Not good news. That much water would flood our lobby and do damaged to the building's basement where much of electrical equipment was located. There was nothing we could do except wait and make the proverbial best out of a bad situation.
# # #
I hadn't eaten anything since early in the morning when I had my usual blueberry muffin with cream cheese and glass milk, so I decided to try one of the ready meals. There were at least eight different varieties. I chose a vegetable-pasta combination that seemed to be the least spicy. The ready meals are heated chemically, that is by means of a chemical reaction. A volunteer at the table prepared my ready meal. Twelve minutes later I opened the food pouch, sampled it, and found it was much too spicy for me. To continue eating it would have created gastrointestinal problems a few hours later. I threw away the rest of the ready meal and contented myself with a cup of water. Eating, I realized, was going to be a problem for me and Anita. But I wasn't going to solve it then and there. I would have to wait and see how things developed, though I wasn't sure what I was waiting for. Besides, I was tired. The last few hours had drained me physically and psychologically. Trying to sleep with the lights on was difficult, but eventually I must have slept, because when I looked at the clock over the doorway, it read 4:15 in the morning and I had to urinate.
The bathroom wasn't close by. To get to it, I had to leave the gymnasium, go up a flight of six steps, turn left and walk down a hallway before I reached it. Navigating there with my cane in hand was at best a shaky enterprise, especially so because I was still half asleep and unsure of my surroundings. But not so unaware as not to notice the cop seated in the hallway near the steps, or that the restroom was dimly lit and smelled of urine and feces. There were two urinals, three sinks, and one commode in a stall without a door. Privacy was not an issue; there wasn't any. I had to wait for my turn at one of the urinals because there were several men in front of me.
By the time I returned to my bed, I was exhausted and fell into an uneasy sleep until six o'clock when, sensing movement around me, I awoke. Men and a few women were already at the food distribution table, and a couple had taken their places at a long table reserved for eating. There were also people who were leaving the shelter. Where they were going was an enigma to me. Though the storm had not yet hit, the predictions were as dire as the night before.
I failed to take a book with me, so I had nothing to do but think, look at the people around me, and think some more. When I first arrived, I realized that the gymnasium was rectangular and Anita and I were close to what was one of the long sides of the rectangle; the other long side formed the back wall. Each of these walls had two basketball hoops. The two shorter sides also had two basketball hoops. Each of the walls was divided in half. The upper section completely covered by strips of wood, while the bottom portion was used to hang mats on. There were two large colorful posters on the back wall with LET'S GO SEA HAWKS writ large on them. It was completely utilitarian and possessed a dull institutional ambience that made me think of the many people there whose lives depended on similar places where food and shelter were available.
I was anxious about Nathan's surgery, and decided to phone Michelin, his wife, at three o'clock when, according to what he told me the day before, he would be finished with the surgery and in the recovery room. Waiting for something to happen or not to happen is always stressful, and Anita and I were doubly stressed: by the outcome of Nathan's surgery and by our dislocation caused by Sandy.
It wasn't a matter of hurry up and wait, as it was so often in the army, but it was rather a situation in which the mind seemed to slow down time, though it moved at its normal pace. The hours dragged by. Intermittently I slept or Anita slept. I used the bathroom several times and so did Anita. We spoke to some members of the staff, but not to anyone else. By early afternoon, there weren't many people in the shelter.
# # #
Anita decided we should leave the shelter and return to our apartment. She argued that other people had left. I couldn't deny that; but the storm hadn't struck yet, and what would we do if we were back in the apartment and didn't have power, or if a surge flooded the area in which we lived. Her point was that there was also the possibility of none of those things happening. That was true. But I was not willing to gamble on it not happening even though it hadn't happened during hurricane Irene. Both of us are eighty-three years old; both of us use a cane and have trouble walking. Neither one of us is strong enough to withstand something untoward happening. I compromised and said I would call the concierge when I phoned Michelin.
As the remainder of the afternoon oozed by, I tried to think about the memoir I was writing and discovered that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't focus on it. I think there are two reasons for this. One was that the sense, the feeling, even the smell of poverty was very real, and for people like me and my wife, who were distant from poverty, very intense. Years before, as a runaway, I experienced a similar level of poverty. I slept in flop houses and a couple of times in communal dormitories, and I had to scrounge for food. But poor as my family was during the depression, we always had a roof over our heads, and bread, if nothing else, on the table. This experience awakened memories that I wasn't prepared to deal with. They had been away from me for many, many years.
The second reason had to do with our surroundings, specifically the people. I'm a people watcher; most authors are. People are our raw material. In the shelter there was plenty of them around me. I had already named two: Mister Nobody and the Crazy Lady, though I hadn't spoken to either one.
During one of my infrequent trips to the communal eating table, I overheard a fortyish looking, unshaven and raggedly dressed man, tell some other men that before nine-eleven he had "big money." Maybe he had "big money," as he referred to it, but I doubt it. He was loud, and for reasons I couldn't make out, he was argumentative. Obviously on drugs, he was expelled from the shelter early the next day for fighting.
As for the Crazy Lady — so named because of the way she dressed: a long brown coat, a green camouflage hat, a green leaf patterned dress and high white stockings — she was small and probably older than Anita and me. I watched her do her "daily dozen." There was something pathetically comical about it. After each set of exercises, she was forced to sit and rest. When she was finished, she immediately got back into bed and went to sleep.
# # #
It was almost three o'clock, and I was getting antsy about Nathan. I tried my cell phone; it wouldn't work. But then I remembered we were on the B4 level, the lowest possible level below the first floor. My phone wasn't smart enough to work in the lower depths, so with a security escort I rode the elevator to the first floor and discovered something like a new world: one with windows that allowed me to see the work of the wind as it tore at branches of the trees and drove the rain hard against the windows. There were other things on the first floor: tables and chairs, street people occupying benches and sleeping in corners against the walls. I claimed a chair near an empty table and phoned Michelin. She answered on third ring. Nathan was still in surgery; she had no other information. I said that I would call again in an hour. That Nathan was still in surgery was not reassuring, and I knew such news would further upset Anita. I decided to stay on the first floor until after my second phone call to Michelin.
While I waited, I discovered another bathroom, cleaner than the one on the B4 level. It had three stalls with doors, but no locks, though with a little effort you could get the door on the last stall to remain shut. A small victory for privacy, though if history is to believed, many a king conducted state business from the throne of the commode.
As I waited for the hour to pass, I met a man who had a small computer and he was able to give me the latest information on Sandy. Streets were already flooded and the surge hadn't even begun. Power was out in many places. Battery Park, where I live, was particularly badly hit; there were pictures to prove it. I dialed my building's number, and got a canned message consisting mainly of numbers. There wasn't any doubt in my mind that 50 Battery Place did not have power, and would probably take a hit when the surge began. The rear of the building faced the Hudson and was about two hundred feet from it. Certainly the basement and the lobby would be flooded. It was a glum outlook, and to make it glummer, Michelin didn't have any news about Nathan.
When I told Anita there wasn't any news about Nathan and I wasn't able to get through to the concierge, she fought back the tears and said nothing. There was nothing we could do to change what was happening to Nathan or ourselves. We felt as if we were prisoners, and in a way we were. Sandy, our jailor.
# # #
I made several more trips to the upper level in order to phone Michelin. Finally, at about nine o'clock, I spoke to my son. The surgery over; it went well and he was home, all good news. Our conversation was brief; there was no need to go into details. But I did discover that he was in the recovery room at about three fifteen, and no one at the hospital thought to phone Michelin and give her that information; it would have saved us hours of anxious waiting.
Before I returned to "the lower depths," I called our building's concierge and got the same message that I received before. His phone was still not working. I also stopped by the table where the man I had previously spoken to still sat. He showed me pictures of the Battery Park area. The devastation was extensive. What I saw increased my concern. I had visions of Anita and I having to remain in the shelter for days.
# # #
Anita was much relieved by the news I gave her about Nathan, and very disturbed when I told her what I had seen on the computer screen. There was nothing we could do other than bed down for the night. Bedding down consisted of pulling the blanket up to where it felt comfortable and closing our eyes with the hope that sleep would come. Anita had her blanket over her head; I can't sleep that way. Besides, the day had been full of experiences that kept me awake. There was Mister Muscles. He was middle aged, wore a sleeveless T-shirt with writing on it that I couldn't make out. He must have eaten a ready meal every three or four hours. There were other people who frequently took ready meals back to their space, probably to use after they left the shelter. A woman, who looked very much like Miss Piggy including the dark glasses, was there with her husband and daughter. She, too, made numerous visits to the ready meal table.
At four o'clock, the street people began to return to the shelter. There were many newcomers and the shelter was rapidly filling. Some of the new people arrived with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. One of them, a very big black man whose face was as twisted as Quasimodo's, landed in the bed next to mine. He barely was clothed. Most of his teeth were gone. His eyes were wide and bulging. He wore heavy cargo pants, a thin shirt, and rubber slippers. Later it was clear that he wasn't wearing any underwear. He made some inarticulate grunts, flopped down on the bed, pulled the blanket over his head, and quickly fell asleep. During the night, he twisted and turned and made very loud growling-like sounds.
At night I got to know a few of the volunteers like Bob, a short, stocky man who had a Ph.D. in Mental Health, and Mary, a supervisor, who held an administrative position at the college. There were others whose names I have forgotten or didn't hear properly.
Real sleep was impossible, but I did doze off several times during the night. My body felt stiff and all of its joints hurt. At five o'clock in the morning I was wide awake and decided it was a good time to use the bathroom and wash up. My decision was based on the simple fact that traffic to the bathroom would be less at that hour. I discovered that wasn't the case. Other people had made the same erroneous decision. But once there, I wasn't going to retreat. Besides, my bowels told me that using the commode was imperative.
Do you recall the story of Don Quixote's futile battle with the windmills? Well, my battle with the toilet paper dispenser, though not futile, was so completely frustrating that it almost brought me shouting curses and obscenities or a combination of both. The problem was simple: each time I tore paper off the roll the end would disappear into the dispenser, and that required hunting for it, and that in turn required sensitive finger tips that would discern exactly where the beginning of paper was. Accomplishing that required skill and many rolls of the roll of toilet paper. Because I have a pulmonary condition I wheeze. These sounds coupled with those that come with straining must have made me sound like a badly out of tune orchestra; and coupled to this was the certain knowledge that another man was waiting to use the facility I was using. I could see the impatient movement of his feet, and expected him to call out with a lusty voice, "Hey man hurry up," or worse. But he didn't. And I finished with my self-respect intact and feeling much better.
I waited my turn for a sink and when I finally got one, it was covered with hair and splotches of water. Using hand napkins, I wiped it down. But wiping something down doesn't make it sanitary unless you use a sanitizer. I was careful about where I put my tooth brush and my wash cloth, both came in the personal items kit that was given to me and Anita when we arrived. Given the circumstances, I emerged from the bathroom as clean as I could be.
# # #
Anita was still sleeping or pretending to be asleep; either way, I didn't attempt to speak to her. Instead, I went over to the table where Mister Nobody and the Muscle Man were involved in conversation. That was before Mr. Nobody was expelled from the shelter later that morning for fighting. With him was a bleached blond black woman. He and Mr. Muscles were engaged in political discussion. Mr. Nobody was, from what I could hear, a Mitt Romney man, while Mr. Muscles favored Obama. I am not exactly sure what the trigger was, but suddenly there was more tension, much more. Within moments, Mr. Muscles left the table, wisely avoiding some sort of showdown that might have turned physical.
By the time I returned to Anita, I noticed a cellophane wrapped corn muffin in the crux of her arm. I quickly learned from Bob that Mary had put it there. The previous morning Anita had noticed that one of the volunteers, a tall middle aged man, who was a member of a specific emergency group, was holding a similarly wrapped corn muffin that, he explained, he gotten from a luncheonette that was open despite the storm. Anita obviously was hungry and would have relished the muffin. He sensed this and offered it to her; she, too embarrassed to accept it, declined the offer. Mary, witness to this small drama, reacted by bringing her the muffin that was nestled inside Anita's elbow. It was a beautiful, virtuous act by one human being toward another human being.
I found myself thinking that the simple act of giving Anita the muffin was a very real example of what "goodness" is; there was nothing in the clouds about it. It came from one individual's desire to satisfy the need of another. There wasn't any thought of recompense involved. What mattered was the giving.
# # #
Quasimodo was awake and sitting on the edge of his bed. He was obviously disturbed about something. He clutched at his genitals and I guessed he had to urinate. I got the attention of a volunteer and told him what I thought the problem was. Turned out I was right. I watched Quasimodo walk, waddle from side to side the way I do when my feet swell and walking becomes difficult.
He returned a much happier man, but he did not go back to sleep. Again he sat on the edge of his bed and like some animal sniffed the air and moved his head back and forth. It took me a while to realize he was hungry. He hadn't eaten anything since he had arrived in the shelter. I saw Bob and gestured to him. He came over to where I was and I told him I thought Quasimodo was hungry. Of course, I didn't use that name. Something totally unexpected and wonderful happened when Bob went to him. He discovered that Quasimodo, though he lacked the power of speech, had the ability to write and write in clear, complete sentences. The two communicated via a legal size yellow pad and pen.
Quasimodo was indeed hungry. Bob assigned a young man to him. When the young man suggested that he bring the ready meal to the bed, Quasimodo told him he wanted to choose which one he wanted and that he wanted to sit at the table and eat it. He wanted to be with people who were doing what he was doing. Later I met the young man who was assigned to Quasimodo and he told me that except for his inability to speak and his physical and psychological problems, Quasimodo was surprisingly clever and had a sense of humor. I thanked the young man for working with Quasimodo, but he graciously thanked me for bringing him to Bob's attention.
I, myself, made a connection with Quasimodo, albeit a private one since the both of us have impairments; his is worse than mine, but mine has impacted my life in ways I could not have imagined. I am almost deaf. My left ear is functionally less than five percent, while my right ear is only in the twenty five percent ranges. Much of what I hear is unintelligible or just noise. I am not a lip reader, so conversation becomes a chore, and hearing aids often make it worse because they pick up so much of the ambient sounds. As a result of this I find myself more and more an outsider. It is a difficult place to be when you're visually aware of the world around you. The mistakes I make in understanding what is said to me are embarrassing, and to avoid them, I avoid speaking to a stranger as much as I can or, if I do speak, I usually inform the person that I am partially deaf. I know how frustrating this is for me; I can easily image what it must be like for Quasimodo who cannot speak.
# # #
Before I returned to Anita, I checked on the latest news about the hurricane. The storm was over, but the damage was enormous. Lower Manhattan was depicted as waste-land, the subways weren't running, whole areas were flooded by the surge, all of the tunnels were inaccessible. The damage was estimated to be in the billions of dollars. People were warned not to attempt to travel in those areas of the city that sustained high damage. I had no hope of returning to our building any time soon. It was not the kind of news that I wanted to give to Anita when she awoke.
She was still asleep when I returned. The corn muffin was where it was when I left. I sat down on the side of my bed and watched what was happening. People were leaving the shelter. On a diagonal between where I was and the table where people ate an elderly thin woman unwrapped herself from her blanket. She spoke to herself and violently gesticulated as she made up her bed and placed her meager belongings under her chaise lounge. Then, she put on her coat and left the shelter though it was still raining and a strong wind was blowing according to the latest weather report.
Anita finally awoke from a restless and broken sleep. When I showed her the corn muffin and explained who brought it, she was less than interested; then I told her about the dire conditions in the area where we live. Her answer to me was that she didn't care; she wanted to go home and so began a strange marital dance, part a battle of wills and part a battle of rationality against pure emotionalism. We have been married for sixty-two years. In that length of time many things accumulate that are abrasive and extraneous to the situation in which we found ourselves. To avoid any emotional vomit from either one of us, I volunteered to go out and get muffins, coffee for me, and tea for her. I found an open luncheonette on Third Avenue where I could buy what I wanted. While I was there I saw pictures on the TV of the devastation caused by the storm. According to the newscaster, lower Manhattan was totally flooded. That wasn't good news. I went back to the shelter, but before I returned to the B4 level I phoned my building's concierge. There wasn't any answer. Now there was nothing to do but wait, and waiting did not sit well with Anita. She was sure that the TV people were lying, but there was no way of knowing what was true and what wasn't. Sometime in the afternoon, she told me that she missed her family. I commiserated, thinking she meant her brother and our sons and grandchildren. But she wasn't referring to them at all; she meant the people who take care of our building, the porters, handymen and the various concierges. I did not have an answer.
The woman, who left earlier, returned and once again buried herself under the blanket. It was announced that limited bus service had started, and it was free. That got a cheer.
Now and then, Anita badgered me about returning to our apartment and I tried not to lose my temper. Even if we left the shelter, there might not be any way for us to go downtown. At one point I did become angry and accused her of acting like a spoiled little girl. But I was beside myself with concern for our safety. I have no illusions about what I can do; I know full well what I can no longer do and that knowledge is painful to accept.
Sometime in the early afternoon, I decided to go up and call the concierge again. My own restlessness and boredom were depressing me even more than before. I watched people sit on their bed and stare at the wall for hours. I couldn't help thinking of the line from "The Man With the Hoe," by Edwin Markham —— "Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?" Was the light really blown out? What did these wall starers think about? I needed to go where there was the illusion of openness even if was just looking out of a window.
# # #
The weather had moderated. A thin drizzle fell and the wind was hardly blowing. I phoned the concierge again with the same result. I stayed upstairs for an hour or so; then I went back down to the B4 level. Anita importuned me almost constantly about going home. Finally, I told her "come what may" we would leave the following day. It was an empty promise made out of desperation. I hadn't any idea of how we would go home; or if, when we got there, we'd be allowed to stay. But by making the promise, I cut myself some slack. In the meantime, the day passed ponderously. I had nothing to occupy my time with, so I dozed off now and then. When I was awake, I went to the bathroom, or I just stood up and stretched. During one of my stretching sessions, I noticed a young black man in the row behind mine reading In Cold Blood. Having taught the book, I was determined to speak to him about it. That would at least give something to do. But before I could not initiate any overtures to him, he and his friend left, leaving their blankets and personal items in such a way as to indicate they would return.
Boredom became a disease. There was nothing for me to do but watch other people, and even for an inveterate people watcher like me, that too can became wearisome. Trying to think of something for more than a few minutes was impossible, though I had many things I wanted to think about. Every line of thinking went nowhere. Finally, I gave up, closed my eyes and dozed.
# # #
I was awake before four o'clock and very hungry. I was sure Anita felt the same way. We hadn't eaten anything substantial since Sunday night, and now it was the beginning of Tuesday evening. Because I knew the weather had moderated, I suggested we leave the shelter and find a place to have dinner. She agreed, and at five o'clock we signed out of the shelter and walked toward Third Avenue.
A thin rain fell, but it didn't deter us. We were pleased to be out of the cloistered environment of the shelter. There were a few cabs and a bus on Lexington Avenue. There were other people walking about. We were crossing a street opposite a Food Emporium when I suddenly realized I was looking at Tony, a man I knew from the VA Hospital. He was coming toward us when I called his name. He was surprised to see us, and the three of us stepped back on the sidewalk. I explained why we were there and he told us that his step-son's building had lost power and he was staying with him. We spoke for a few more minutes, and he told us that conditions south of Thirty-Eighth Street were very bad. That was disheartening news for us and didn't auger well for the promise I had made to Anita to go home the following day. Though I made no mention of it, it lay heavily in my thoughts. Tony wished us luck and once again we were on our own.
We walked three or four blocks south on Third Avenue. There were restaurants where we could have had dinner, but they were significantly over priced and patronized by people who were better dressed than we were, so we demurred and wound up in a Delicatessen and brought sandwiches back to the shelter.
We had walked eight or nine blocks, and Anita observed that the neighborhood people didn't see us; we were invisible to them. By that she meant that they were oblivious to us. We didn't belong in their neck of the woods. If that was so, it was equally true that we felt uncomfortable being there. From the way we looked, we were probably pegged as shelter people, perhaps street people. And there was more than five degrees of separation between us. That gave me something to think about on the way back to shelter, especially with presidential election coming up the following week. For me, the election took on an even great importance than it already had. I was living with the have nots, the people that Republicans do not see, do not acknowledge their existence, in fact do not even acknowledge their right to life. As far as I was concerned, a man like Quasimodo had to be protected.
We ate our sandwiches in what can best be described as the foyer of the building where, to our surprise, there were people camped. There was one couple who was territorial enough to delineate their corner space by marking it off with books, several backpacks, and even a grocery cart. Anita could only eat half her sandwich, while I devoured all of mine. We remained upstairs taking advantage of the cleaner bathrooms and the openness of the space.
# # #
When we returned to our places on the B4 level, I gave Quasimodo the uneaten half of Anita's sandwich. He made a several inarticulate sounds and quickly dispatched it, rewarding me with a lopsided smile.
Sometime later, Anita had an accident and needed to change her underwear. There wasn't any way that this could be done in a public bathroom without a great deal of embarrassment to Anita. I signaled to the volunteer supervisor, a short, stocky, matronly looking woman with glasses and when she came over to where we were, I explained the situation. She immediately took charge of Anita and led her away.
By this time, the young man who was reading In Cold Blood returned, and I introduced myself. What followed was a long, pleasant conversation that went from Truman Capote to the philosophical ideas about reality, laws, and art. I was so engrossed that I did not realize Anita had returned. The young man wanted to write film scripts and that made our conversation even more meaningful because part of it was about the craft of writing. I gave him my card hoping he would want to continue our conversation. Sadly, he did not follow up. Possibly he figured I was too old to be of much use to him, which might be true.
The evening dragged on. The street people returned, and again there seemed to be more of them. Anita and I felt marooned. In a way, it was as if we didn't have a prior life and we wouldn't have a future one, or at least these were my feelings; and hers too from what I could gather from our infrequent conversations. There really wasn't much to talk about. After all, we'd been married for more than six decades. We had retold family stories many times, so many times that they have become boring. And what had happened to us over the last few days had trammeled the need for conversation rather than expanding it.
So, there we were. Two melancholy individuals facing another long uncomfortable night amongst strangers and away from our apartment. And then Jason came to us. He said that we were like a beacon. From across the huge gymnasium, he could tell we needed help when he first saw us. That must have been about the time I saw him speaking to a woman to whom Anita had spoken to about novels the day before. Late that evening the woman volunteered to go to a different shelter, but now she was back and was speaking to Jason before I knew who he was.
Jason came to us, so to speak, to give us solace and courage to bear what has befallen us. He was young man not above thirty five, personable looking, and with a ready smile. We told him where we lived, and he reiterated what we had already heard about the devastation to lower Manhattan. We discovered that he was minister with a church on a Hundred and Thirty- Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue. I explained we were Jews, but did not follow the religion. That didn't seem to matter to him. And because he reminded me of Father Pierce Brennan, I started to tell him about Percy, who I met in the army and became friends with — no, Father Brennan became an unofficial member of my family. Then suddenly I dissolved into tears. I could not stop my weeping. Father Brennan's death was an enormous personal loss; and though I seldom mention him, I have never forgotten him. I was embarrassed, but I wept until I could not weep any more. Anita was absolutely surprised by my behavior and so was I. Jason took it in stride. I am sure I was not the first man he saw cry. Before he left us, he took hold of each of our right hands and said a long prayer for us. I felt rather guilty about this since I'm an atheist by choice, yet I did not have the chutzpah to pull my hand away. He was a good man doing what he believed in. His words did not in any way diminish the strength of my own belief . Much later he brought me a container of tea.
# # #
The lights were dimmed down creating an after-hours, hospital-like gloom. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but could not. I continued to think about my weeping . . . what caused me to break down down that way? And the only explanation I could reasonably entertain was that I was over wrought, stressed by what had happened over the last couple of days, and deeply concerned about Anita's reaction if in fact we could not leave on Wednesday as I had promised we would.
Eventually, I did sleep, and when I awoke and looked at my watch, it was six o'clock in the morning. The shelter migrants were already leaving and there were people already seated at the table eating.
I went to the bathroom, urinated, and washed. Then I put on my jacket and placed my blanket over Anita. She was still asleep. By the time I was upstairs and on my way to the luncheonette, it must have been about seven-thirty. The choices in the luncheonette were smaller than the day before, and all of the muffins looked stale. But a stale muffin is better than none at all. I bought two: blueberry for Anita and a banana nut for me, and the requisite herbal tea for her and light coffee for me. Before I went down to the B4 level, I phoned our building. Chris, our daytime concierge answered. As soon as I heard his voice, I knew we'd be going home. Our building and those in our neighborhood had not been damaged by Sandy; ours was not a disaster area.
We left quickly; I gave the cellophane-wrapped corn muffin to Quasimodo, thanked the woman who helped Anita, and gathering our meager belongs. Together we went upstairs and signed out. The sun was shining and we felt a breeze. I hailed a cab, and we were on our way home to what Anita referred to as our magic building. She had been right all along; our building was inviolate.