Listening Post #23: Surviving Hurricanes: A Love Story

Listening Post #23: Surviving Hurricanes: A Love Story

When Hurricane Irene recently vented her fury on the East coast, I huddled inside, safe and secure, troubled only by an errant storm drain creating temporary inconvenience in my basement. Like most of us, my own comfort and safety consumed my thoughts and actions. But while I was snug and warm, some of our species were out there in the storm trying to find shelter, and others braved the elements to keep the rest of us safe and unharmed. This is the story of the journey of two men during the hurricane; one needing shelter, the other choosing to forego it in order to keep the other safe.

Anon (see Listening Post #13) and his friend Hank are both homeless, although  you would never guess it of the professorial Anon. Anon has more resources than Hank, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and weighs in at close to 400 pounds. Hank’s illness and size result in a profound lack of personal hygiene, which makes him the most rejected of the rejected; the confraternity of homeless sojourners themselves find it difficult to be near him. He refuses to go into a homeless shelter, fearing both personal ridicule and victimization. So he stays on the streets.

On the night  of the hurricane, Anon could have simply made plans for his own shelter and safety. But he worried about Hank’s ability to weather the storm, and so he ventured out to find him. And  then, amidst the torrential rains and howling wind,  Anon set out with Hank in search of someplace in which to ride out the storm. He got Hank onto a bus, and off they went to 30th Street Station, that enormous, beautiful, solid, dry Philadelphia landmark, surely a reliable refuge on such a night.

Wrong. After offering to buy his friend a ticket to Anywhere if it would ensure his ability to stay put for the night, Anon was informed that Hank could not stay. A van was coming to transport “those people” to a shelter, and the station was closing. Knowing Hank’s intolerance for shelters, Anon got himself and Friend onto another bus, this one headed out to Chester to the casino there, thinking that this never-closes venue would be a sure bet for a night’s shelter. After traveling for an hour through wind and water, they got off the bus, only to find that the casino, too, had closed.

Back on another bus, this one heading for the airport. Anon and Hank, riding through the night, hoping to find lights on and kindly security who will look the other way, at least for one night. The bus driver told them he thought the airport was closed, but having exhausted all other options, they rode on. Hank was wary of going to the airport: he is known to the police who walk the airport beat from prior attempts to sleep there overnight. Some of the cops are kind, but one is routinely brutal, having told Hank on prior occasions that he is “nothing but a stinking, m-fing piece of s--t”... not the sort of comment one forgets.

Upon arrival they found that the airport had, in fact, closed, but that 25 stranded passengers were huddled somewhere attempting sleep under airport-issued silver thermal blankets. Anon and Hank joined them. Conspicuous by their lack of cozy covers, they nonetheless hunkered down for a few hours respite. At 1 a.m., Hank was sleeping upright in a chair when Anon observed the notorious police officer approach the slumbering Hank and kick him firmly in the shin, one final indignity on a night filled with so many others. A few hours later, the storm roared north, taking its destructive power with it, so all remaining airport denizens were loaded onto a bus and deposited at City Hall. His mission of ensuring Hank’s safety accomplished, Anon then bid his friend farewell.

This story is haunting me, and for so many reasons. There are all the socio-political subtexts:  the intractability of a housing shortage and lack of options for people like Hank: our institutional inability and unwillingness to  address the needs of people who have no homes, especially those who suffer from mental illness: the vast sums landing and staying in the pockets of the wealthy, while one woman I know spent the storm crouched inside a port-o-potty she broke into seeking shelter…….and so much more. Despite all of the principled and passionate efforts to provide shelter and the millions spent on the task, there are still Hanks out there.

And then there are the numerous personal indignities suffered by Anon and Hank, from the 30th Street cop who feigned busy-ness rather than answer Anon’s inquiry right away….he was playing a video game on his phone and made Anon wait for a response…….to the simple ignominy of standing in the pelting rain waiting for a bus during a hurricane.

But the real story here, and what has captured my heart, is the simple, loving kindness of Anon, providing his Friend sanctuary with his own presence and care. I marvel at the willingness of one human being to extend himself beyond what most of us would consider reasonable. It never occurred to Anon to leave Hank out there all alone. Instead, his great heart wrapped itself around his friend, providing a different kind of refuge from the storm. I am in awe of such a sheltering soul.

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