Emergency Shelter

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Friday, September 14th, 2001

Part 1

This morning, I heard that four thousand FBI agents, three thousand support personnel, and four hundred forensic lab technicians are “on the case.” I wonder who coordinates them and what they are not doing this week that they were doing last week.

I didn’t know where I was going when I set out at 8:00 a.m. It was pouring. On Tuesday morning, the 11th, I realized that downtown would not be a good fit for me—too many police. On Wednesday, I brought fifty or sixty pounds of supplies for work at Ground Zero to a staging area at the Chelsea Piers. The canvas bags of respirators, tools and other equipment was more than I could safely carry on my old bike. But yesterday, along with a lot of other people, I wanted to do more, something more concrete.

I dug out my American Red Cross helmet, technically a “bump cap, as close as I had to the hard hat—required for work at Ground Zero. It was dark as I turned west and zig-zagged northward on my bike, hoping to find a way to be helpful. The rain felt more right than the brilliant blue skies of the last few days. My shiny plastic helmet, emblazoned with a crisp red cross, shed the torrents of water perfectly.

Something felt wrong as I rode downhill on West 33rd Street; my bike seemed to be disintegrating beneath me. I turned uphill on Tenth Avenue; the pedals spun but no longer propelled me. The steel frame had snapped at the bottom bracket; my trusted steed was suddenly useless. A sign of some sort? Of all the precarious moments I’ve spent tearing between cars and buses, it was this morning, while I was going slowly with few cars around, that the bike fell apart.

I left it locked to a No Parking sign and continued on foot toward the Javits Convention Center. A young man approached; no one else was anywhere around. He asked where he could buy a hard hat, clearly assuming I was wearing one. Surprisingly, I couldn’t answer, though I knew all the hardware stores and lumberyards in the area. “Nowhere close by,” I said, after a pause. My words were washed away by the driving rain.

Approaching the enormous dark glass convention center, I could see people in a variety of rain gear—from five-dollar yellow coats to garbage bags and real rain suits in an assortment of colors. A few hundred people crammed together in the rain is not a normal sight—at least not in America. They all wanted to help.

Seeing there was little for me to do, I found a uniformed person and asked if he knew of a Red Cross station nearby. He didn’t. No one seemed to know much. Still hoping to learn something, I followed an exterior stairway toward a lower entrance to the late 1970s, shoebox-shaped building. Once closer to the human stockyard, the view down into the waiting crowd reminded me of a black and white photograph I had seen in a museum. In it, women with woven wicker baskets appeared to squeeze between a mass of idle men, passing out food. In today’s scene, it was apples and oranges being distributed from white plastic bags. Breakfast, perhaps. Given the early hour and the fact that no one else was arriving to join, it seemed probable that all these people had come yesterday or possibly the day before.

I wondered if a few people were called to work downtown now and then, like they are from the gatherings of undocumented construction workers who wait in parking lots, hoping that bosses in pick-up trucks will select them. Most of the people in the crowd below me wore hard hats; it appeared that they had heard or read the same reports I had stating that anyone who wanted to help needed to bring their own equipment.

A dull energy swelled from the slow-motion swarm of mostly men. The mass displayed an oddly choreographed movement, likely resulting from the occasional shifting of their weight from one leg to another. How long had they been there, waiting without even the space to sit on the wet pavement?

Having given up on this venue, I walked up a ramp back toward street level. Before reaching Eleventh Avenue, I passed a State Trooper wearing a brown uniform with a broad-brimmed hat. He was fully protected by a cheap transparent raincoat. It included a fitted clear hat cover which reminded me of the thin plastic rain bonnets women in the 1950s and 60s carried in their purses. Enthusiastically, the trooper called out, “Red Cross!” and held out his hand to shake mine, as though to thank me for my good work. It was both sweet and sad. Both of us were just symbols: me with my white hat dating back to the 1970s, him with his typical daily uniform, stationed in the rain, doing nothing.

It was not yet 9:00 a.m. My bulging backpack held a tool belt, a hammer, a holster, a few wrecking bars, a tarp, water, masks, gloves, and some first aid supplies. I decided to head to the Red Cross Headquarters, which I knew was just north of Lincoln Center. I’ve done work for the American Red Cross in the past, at the scenes of floods and hurricanes in Pennsylvania and Mississippi, and I worked in one of the four huge American resettlement camps (in the US) after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Despite my previous involvement, I had never set foot in my local chapter. Still, I guessed that someone there would know something; they’d dealt with all kinds of unexpected difficult situations before.

At 42nd Street and Tenth Avenue, I stepped out of the rain into a coffee shop. Water poured off me like a bad leak from upstairs. I ordered tea and a fried egg on a roll to go. I ate outside in the partially protected doorway of a closed video rental store while waiting for an uptown bus. Just as I finished eating, a half-full bus arrived. The driver waved me in. ”No charge.” 

The rain had tapered by the time we reached 67th Street. I unzipped my jacket to let my official-looking Red Cross shirt show. Crisp black metal letters reading “A-R-C” were pinned near the lower pointed edge of its deep blue collar. An embroidered “Disaster Service” patch was sewn just above my heart. It had been a long time since I had worn this shirt. It fit perfectly.

Looking as official as possible, I walked up the broad outdoor steps and into the low building. The uniform worked; I got right through the guard station, even though I didn’t have proper ARC identification. While talking with the strong and clearly overworked woman at the card table desk, people without prior affiliation and experience were being turned back. I was told I could attend a training session starting at noon, more than two hours away—an eternity, for my day. I asked what I could do in the meantime. She said, “Go down to the loading dock and help unload supplies.” She must have assumed I knew how to get there.

After quite a few (hopefully discrete) wrong turns, I made it to the dark subterranean loading area, a space that was likely a garage in normal times. The amount of loading and unloading work that needed to be done could easily have been accomplished by half a dozen people, but there were another twenty or thirty more standing around, waiting. Unlike some paid employees, the volunteers all appeared ready and anxious to do something.

It barely took a second to see that I wasn’t needed. I surveyed the scene for other possibilities and spotted a woman coming out of a small trailer. Lean and fit, she moved around like a caged animal as she talked into a cell phone, perhaps she needed privacy. She knew the underground territory well and traced its small perimeter. Based on nothing more than how she moved, I decided she had significant responsibility. While she talked, I stayed in range, circling, fearing she would hang up and immediately disappear into one of the many off-limits zones. It was a delicate balance not to be stalking her. When the call ended, I quickly caught her attention.

“Is there anything useful for me to do?” I asked.
Noting my outfit, she replied, “Have you ever managed a shelter?”
“Yes.” Thinking of my stints in Pennsylvania after Hurricane Agnes.

She reached for her phone as I began to worry about what I had just said. I had done numerous jobs for the Red Cross, but had I actually “managed” a shelter? If I had, it would have been more than thirty years ago. I tried to figure out how to ask what was involved without blowing my cover, but nothing came to mind. I didn’t want to jeopardize my first lead.

In less than five minutes, she found a driver to take me somewhere. Slipping into the back seat, I overheard the diver call her Amber. She handed me the phone number for “mass care” in case I had a problem and wished me good luck as she closed the car door.

Although Amber told the driver of the 1980s American Red Cross station wagon what shelter to take me to, I never got its name or address. Apparently, I was going to replace a person who had been at work nearly thirty-six hours. Normal shelter shifts are eight or, at most, twelve hours. The driver’s radio crackled with incomprehensible information. Both of us were quiet; I was busy taking in the landscape.

South of 14th Street, we cruised through an area that had been shut tight to most citizens since Tuesday. Being there at that moment was thrilling in a way I never could have imagined. Everything had shifted in the city and much more so downtown. Block after block was deserted. Checkpoints appeared at seemingly random locations. This recently public part of town had become an occupied zone.

We slowed, but didn’t fully stop, at our first checkpoint; we were waved through. Quite a few police loitered behind the blue wooden barricade. Our white car with red crosses on both sides was a powerful symbol, even if the crosses were just held on with magnets.

The checkpoints became progressively more excruciating and difficult to get through. Apparently, in zones like this, laminated IDs are supposed to be worn around your neck. Amber probably assumed I had an ID, and I realized that it was likely a mistake not to have gotten one before leaving headquarters. It was certainly a mistake not to have written down the name of the shelter we were heading to.

Nothing was moving except for an occasional emergency or military vehicle. The armed checkpoint guardians, whose faces I couldn’t see from the back seat, wanted to know about me. The driver seems to have had acceptable clearance. When pressed, I showed my driver’s license as ID, but it was clearly not what they were looking for.

These were not routine encounters; the guards had only been at their posts for one or two days—at most. Who was making the rules they were following? The last foreign attack on the US mainland was long before anyone’s great great great grandparents were alive.

It had become clear that my driver did not know where we were or where we were going. Asking our protectors for directions was of no use since none of them knew the area. As we got closer to the smoking pile, the area felt increasingly like a war zone. Nearly everyone was armed. I didn’t know where I was, but clearly far from anything I could have imagined a half hour ago in the dark garage.

Intuition, luck, or a dead-end caused us to turn east, and, for no reason I could explain, we encountered our most severe interrogation as we were exiting the secure zone. The well-armed military man in charge of that checkpoint had little patience for the likes of us in our non-armored wagon with worn-out shocks. Rather than feigning importance, I shrunk into the back seat like a small child who has done something wrong. After a while, he peered in at me. He did not say a word. Then, maybe in sheer frustration, he let us go. Or perhaps we were let through because the driver had become more adept in his frontman role.

It hadn’t dawned on me that the driver, whose face I never saw, might be new to his job. Instead, I was thinking about what was ahead for me and what had I gotten myself into. Barely four minutes after exiting the secure zone, we reached the shelter: a public school in Chinatown.



Part 2

The entrance to middle school 131 was set back a long way from the curb. The 1970s beige brick building served as one of six or seven temporary shelters the Red Cross had set up to house displaced residents from lower Manhattan — people who had lost power and gas or had been ordered to evacuate their homes.

The outgoing shelter manager appeared exhausted. The car that brought me was her ticket home, so we had no time to linger or chat. As she gave me a cursory tour; the tension in her body broadcast her need to be out. I thanked her and said goodbye. With significant relief, she walked out toward the white wagon.

The shelter was not busy, and there was time before lunch — the first planned event I would be in charge of. Within ten minutes, I discovered a ham radio operator at the shelter — something I had not anticipated in Manhattan, especially since the phones were working. Or, at least they had been a mile or two north. More than twelve hours passed before I fully recalled that American Red Cross shelters always have a short-wave radio person, an old and practical tradition to provide communication with the outside world — usually helpful and not always easy in disaster situations.

I was the new boss. And I knew nothing. I wondered how often this happens in the professional world. There were a few volunteer staffers and a constant stream of people coming in to offer help. “What should we tell these prospective volunteers?” I was asked. I really didn’t know. “Thank them and say there is nothing to do right now. And encourage them to come back later.”

The shelter community included a variety of city workers including public school employees. Two tough, short, and stout ladies who rarely got up from their folding chairs, guarded the door. I assumed they were school guards who now provided a small unarmed police force for our little village. They kept their eyes on things, which turned out to be helpful. Two cafeteria workers offered no food to shelter residents; perhaps they were there to protect the facility or as part of their union contract. The shelter had its own food — the usual emergency fare, almost entirely junk. Cookies, old sandwiches on white bread, coffee, faux juice, fruit, water, little boxes of raisins, crackers — nothing that required cooking. For a table full of free food, the spread was astonishingly unappealing.

I passed some routine paperwork onto a volunteer and, while pondering my next task, overheard a teacher passing through the lobby area saying something about homeless people outside. I had no idea who she was talking to since hardly anyone was around.

I went to investigate but didn’t see anyone outside where I had entered. Down a narrow side alley, I found four or five guys hanging out in an open area alongside the school. They had a rough and scruffy look and were surely used to living on the street. They’d probably had a few drinks and appeared to be enjoying themselves. I talked with them for a while, trying to get a sense of their situation. It was hard to know what parts of their stories to believe. My story was not particularly coherent either; I was still in the first hour of my new career. I sensed that at least a few of them had been “displaced,” albeit from one street corner to another. Maybe whatever you call home is home, though I don’t imagine many homeless people call even their favorite doorway home. I invited them to come for lunch, which I said would be in about an hour.

It made sense to offer a bed to anyone who wanted one since there were empty beds in the large gymnasium. I called “mass care” using the phone number Amber had handed me as I set off from headquarters. I had no idea of mass care’s role but asked about admitting “homeless” people to the shelter; no rules, guidelines, or advice was offered. No one told me the number of residents in the shelter; there were likely no more than twelve, and nearly all of them were out. I took my job to be an ambassador, keeping the impromptu community together more than a host for individual residents.

Instead of offering the usual shelter spread for lunch, I easily turned the local generosity into an impressive hot buffet. Many local Chinese restaurants had brought over food during the first hour I was in charge. I had accepted all the offerings (though probably against Red Cross donation rules); refusing them was beyond me.

Though the feast was self-serve from styrofoam containers to paper plates and eaten with plastic cutlery, the steaming platters of food on a cold rainy day pleased everyone. We had plenty to go around. I was looking for people to feed. The guys from the back alley came, although it was not exactly the same group I had spoken with barely an hour earlier. I offered them beds, explaining the shelter rules, including the sign-in procedures and curfew. “We will take it under advisement,” one of them said, as they headed back out into the street after a full hot meal.

Inviting them in turned out to be controversial. I had not fully wrestled with the range of issues that might arise by mixing people who live on the street with those who did not have current access to their bed, locked door, toilet, and shower. No one except for the tough guards told me that directly. Their comments were spoken primarily with the look in their eyes and a few dismissive words: “I wouldn’t do that.”

The current residents probably had never stayed in a shelter before and possibly already felt uneasy about it. Aside from providing food and shelter, creating a comfortable environment felt important. A sudden influx of several obviously homeless men into the crowd could have a negative effect on the atmosphere.

Working in disaster situations presents an endless variety of unexpected situations and encounters. Typically, the work is done side-by-side with people you’ve only known for minutes or hours. The immediate dynamic lasts only a few days. There is no time to befriend anyone — far from a normal workplace environment.

The shelter had a nurse and a social worker. The nurses all worked for the city government. The social worker’s employers varied: at least some of them were volunteers, probably arranged through larger not-for-profit organizations. This “professional” staff wasn’t critically needed, but their presence was beneficial to me and the residents. The radio man was great; he had an informed but distant perspective on many issues. He never offered direct advice, but the basic information he provided — mostly about other shelters or the arrival of social workers or shipments — allowed me not to panic, to believe that everything would be alright and perhaps to do a better job than I could have done without him. Being a ham radio operator is similar to being a Morse code operator or a flag person. They are translators of sorts, in this case, the transmitted information is in a familiar spoken language, but they retell the tale in their own words. Without meaning to, they come to be “in the know” about the comings and goings of the shelter and the outside world.

Radio guys, like union workers, are replaced on more precise intervals than shelter managers or social workers, even though they too are volunteers. When Harvey, the replacement radio guy, arrived at about 6:30 p.m., I had him put in a call for a replacement shelter manager for me. I had been working for more than eight hours by that point, and clearly replacement managers did not turn up quickly.

Earlier, during an afternoon lull, I had called to retrieve my personal phone messages. An old friend had called to give me “a tip.” He heard a rumor from a “source” in DC that more attacks were coming. He and his family were leaving the city, and he offered my wife and me the option of leaving with them. I thought about it, but thanked him and said no. I felt like I had work to do.

Throughout the day, donations of all sorts poured in. A volunteer would come and say, “Someone just brought twelve cases of water” or boxes of canned food, or a folding cot. People continued to show up wanting to help, and when we told them that there was nothing to do, they often became distraught. One Asian lady was so disappointed that she rifled in her handbag and thrust a ten-dollar bill at me. I took it. Later, I remembered that it is totally against Red Cross protocol to accept cash donations, but I just couldn’t say no to this lady another time. I kept the folded bill in my pocket, not my wallet, to remind me to get it to the right place.

Nearly everything we couldn’t use (most anything but good food) was sent around the corner to the fire station. Typically, I asked one or two of the younger volunteers to go over with our modest donated treasures. Long past dark, and after one or two more calls for my replacement, I decided to walk over to the firehouse with two college-aged women volunteers (one from Long Island, one from New Jersey). It provided a good excuse to be outside, and most of the shelter residents had gone into the gymnasium for the night.

A few firemen lingered on the sidewalk in front of the firehouse, likely serving as both welcome committee and security. By way of introduction, I explained that we had personal hygiene kits to donate; we had ten times what we needed at the shelter. These junky little zippered pouches each held a toothbrush, toothpaste, a razor, a small tube of shave cream, and a tiny bar of soap. They seemed to be left over from the 1970s and would be useful only for an unexpected sleepover. “Come in,” one of the lieutenants said appreciatively, accepting the donation.

I imagined that many of the guys at the firehouse were from other parts of the city and may not have toiletries. But, after entering the firehouse, I could see how much they had collected. The young women knew exactly where to put the boxes, as both of them had already been deep inside the firehouse. I followed them past the lone remaining ladder truck. The unpainted grey cement block walls were lined with enormous stacks of bottled water and canned food. Flowers were everywhere. The bounty included significantly more desirable items than what regularly arrived at our schoolhouse shelter.

Partway back on the right, was a long rectangular room that might serve as the firehouse’s lounge or dining room in normal times. The open area without a single beam, cornice, or architectural feature and filled with reclining men, was the locus of what little activity there was.

Most wore fire department tee-shirts. I assumed they were all male, but it was hard to see. No one had much to say. A large television, mounted high in the far corner, dominated the space. The screen held nearly everyone’s gaze; the glow appeared to attract attention. The same short reports aired again and again without a shred of new news; yet, the TV served as a sort of high priest. The steady drone of well-dressed talking heads seemed normal, and a feeling of normalcy was clearly desirable.

Though the firehouse’s atmosphere was welcoming, the large dimly lit room felt like their space. I didn’t enter. From the wide doorway, I could see a long central table strewn with food and gently bathed in a flickering blue light from the TV. The scene was reminiscent of a huge painting depicting the aftermath of a grand medieval feast, one that went on for a very long time. This was not such a wine-soaked bacchanal; these guys could have to rush out to fight a fire or to save lives, just as they lifted a fork to their mouth. They needed to have all their wits about them.

I stood still, taking it all in. My eyes moved around the room trying to absorb, if not comprehend, where I was and what was happening. I became keenly aware that my gaze continually drifted back to the screen, just like everyone else’s. We all had the gnawing need to know — to learn something, anything, even though there continued to be nothing. Perhaps we all hoped something would be revealed, explained. The attraction was strong, addictive, numbing. It gave the sense of nourishment without providing any.

The college women easily struck up lite conversation with the firemen. Feeling a bit out of place, I melted into the adjacent kitchen area. Being in the kitchen of a real firehouse was exciting. I’d heard about these mythical places where firemen cook huge meals for the company. A gigantic stainless steel sink overflowing with pots, pans, and dirty plates abutted the wall on the far side of the kitchen, away from the featureless room. A large round table, adjacent to the sink, was pushed into the southwest corner of the room, its wood top was entirely covered with plates of food. Picked-over serving plates had been stacked on top of the mostly empty platters — a geological layering. This was gourmet nourishment provided by some of New York’s finest downtown restaurants: Bouley Bakery, Tribeca Grill, the Union Square Cafe, and other places — an entirely different galaxy than our Red Cross shelter sandwiches.

Just as I had become familiar with the available food, one of the young women came in. I asked what she wanted to eat and assembled an assortment of items with dark sauces. Her body relaxed as I handed over the hearty plate of food. The comforting feeling of being an insider was eclipsed by a sense of being alone. After a short time, I headed back to the shelter.

Being outdoors was a pleasure — the stillness striking, the air and open space a relief. As I walked toward the shelter, rats darted across the empty street at different angles. Oddly, they provided comfort, a reminder that life goes on.

Thankfully, there had been no crisis in my absence. I encouraged the person I had left in charge to get some air. I toured the facility. Everything was calm. The new radio person was doing his thing. Two uniformed replacement guards were sitting in the usual chairs near the main entrance. We exchanged hellos. They had no idea who I was, though my official blue shirt, which I had forgotten I was wearing, likely provided a clue. Our nurse had gone to bed. The new social worker, a fit 45-year-old man from Australia, chatted with me for a while as I filled out paperwork about the comings and goings of the shelter. Suddenly, I remembered a guy who had stopped by in the mid-afternoon to ask if he could come to the shelter in the evening to play music for the residents. “Sure,” I had said. But he never turned up. Was it just an idea, or had he gotten sidetracked at other places?

By around 2:30 a.m., the quiet deepened. I started to think about getting some rest. The main sleeping area, the gymnasium, somehow felt like a private space. As ridiculous as I knew that to be, I chose a spot to bed down near my little desk. Maybe I would be more easily found if something came up. It took nearly half an hour of wandering around trying different locked doors to finally get most of the lights in the huge school to turn off. A donated tarp folded over five or six times provided surprisingly little cushioning from the cold terrazzo floor. My backpack, still filled with tools and other gear, served as a pillow. I may have slept a little, but I was vertical again by 5:00 a.m. Some of the residents were up early — particularly the transient population whom I had admitted to use the open beds. There had been no incidents or problems overnight.

I drifted through the morning wondering what the day would bring and if I would ever be replaced. A slender unshaven guy with dark hair checked out. He had become tired of waiting and repeatedly hearing that he could get back into his place in “one more day.” He was heading to Long Island to stay with a family member. Another guy thought he would be allowed into his home south of Frankfort Street, close to the Brooklyn Bridge. He checked out next.

The radio guy called in my morning shelter’s status report over the shortwave system, a customary practice once or twice per shift. He told me that there was talk of consolidating the shelters, probably because they were depopulating. Every four or five hours through the evening and night, I had asked the radio operator to keep plugging for a replacement manager. A few times, he told me they were sending someone. A while later, a new radio guy arrived but no shelter manager.

I had been there about twenty-four hours when my replacement showed up in a late morning convoy. I understood that his arrival was also my ride back. I briefly toured the new manager around; he had been in another shelter a few days earlier, so there was not much I needed to pass on. I let the waiting van go, taking the volunteers back to headquarters. After a few good-byes, I set off — on foot. I did not want to climb back into that car or be in any kind of confined space. I wanted out, to be in the open.

Despite my exhaustion, being outside was exhilarating. Setting out from an unknown place felt like getting out of a car as a hitchhiker. The ride was over. Suddenly, one adventure ended, another was beginning.

I guessed at the general direction to go since I was not in a part of town that I knew well, and my route there from the Upper West Side had been anything but normal or repeatable. Before long, I crossed from Chinatown into Little Italy, silently walking through rows of abandoned wooden stalls. The booths for games and food sellers of the San Gennaro festival were fully set up. But, like blossoms frozen before unfurling, they had never opened. I felt like I was looking at a ruin, even if the scene was only a few days old.

I walked and walked. Basic locomotion was settling. I reflected on my time at the shelter, which already seemed to be long ago. I was left with a mostly hollow feeling. Like the towers, it was now in the past. As I continued north on Fifth Avenue, amidst a fog of my own thoughts, the Empire State Building appeared.

I stopped, stood perfectly still, and looked at it carefully. It appeared as a jewel or an honored elder. Somehow, its existence in the sky, in the city space, seemed tentative, and that shocked me.

This new awareness, that this fixture could vanish in a moment, made it precious in an utterly unexpected way.


by James Boorstein
© 2021
Courtesy of Box 3 Productions


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