Naked Shelters

A short story set in New York’s Lower East Side in the sixties.

Tall and gaunt, Benjamin Plaskett was tired and disheveled when the clock struck five. Most clients had already left. Those who stayed behind did so for lack of other things to do and had to be ushered out by the security guard. Benjamin was among the first clerks to leave his desk. He was in such a hurry to get out that he didn’t take the time to remove the elastic band from his wrist. He passed one of his clients who was being escorted out by a security guard. He wished hi good night. The client told him to fuck off. Benjamin and the guard exchanged a look of disbelief. Both had been working there for several years and should have become impervious to verbal abuse. Many clients were people with problems that went beyond the financial aid offered by his office. Benjamin was frequently unable to give them the assistance they needed. From the bureaucratic end he met with obstacles, and from the client’s end he met with abuse.  He was relieved when the clock struck five.

The subway passengers leaned against one another to make room for one more. Benjamin hung by the subway strap and was amused by the poster of a woman in a long white gown offering a glass of Black and White scotch on the rocks to a man in a black tuxedo reclining on a sofa. He didn’t care to be that man nor to have that woman, but the whole scene had him tripping into an alluring world, free of decay and civil service. The subway came to a stop. Benjamin stretched his neck over the shoulders of neighboring passengers to read the name of the station, but the window was painted over with graffiti.

“Is this Canal Street?”

“Yes,” some unidentified voices answered. “Hold the doors. Getting out. Scuse me. Getting out.” Benjamin edged his way through the crowd.

To his relief the station wasn’t crowded, but a slow-moving line of people trudged the steps to the open air. A derelict, who didn’t have the two dollars for the Bowery Hotel, frequently slept off his drunk inside the subway. Today he was passed out on the subway steps, half way between in and out. This didn’t bother Benjamin as much as the pungent smell of urine throughout the station. He climbed the steps holding his breath until a draft of cold air hit him in the face, signaling the relative safety of breathing once more.

He walked north on Canal Street, past second-hand stores and discount stores with garment racks on sidewalks. A Jewish delicatessen had people standing on line at the counter while the Italian restaurant next door required reservations. Across the street, a Chinese vendor displayed his produce on the sidewalk—bamboo shoots, snow peas, ginger, gin seng. Benjamin recognized some of the products but couldn’t name most of them. He liked Chinese food but the sight of these ingredients grossed him out. He ordered Chinese takeout frequently by number from a menu because he couldn’t pronounce the name of his selection, nor did he recognize any of the ingredients from the produce stand on his plate. He liked the simplicity of the Chinese cuisine. Meat and vegetable cooked in the same pot, all served in one dish. No need for a knife and no extra dishes to wash. His mother was a good cook but not imaginative. She didn’t vary much between pot roast and meat loaf—wholesome food, she called it.

Benjamin thought he’d like Chinese food tonight, but first he must have a drink. He had just about killed the fifth of vodka last night, but there was enough left for one or two shots. He’ll finish the bottle, treat himself to an unpronounceable dinner, and go to bed early. Recently he’s been getting up late and having to rush to work; sometimes arriving late and getting docked a quarter of his hourly wage for every fifteen minutes. He couldn’t afford to be late for work again.

He hastened to the corner and turned towards Fourth Avenue. The cold westerly wind hit him mercilessly. He tilted his chin downward, pulled up his coat collar, and put the hands in his pocket. It didn’t help. He wasn’t wearing a scarf, and the wind blew right thru it. Just two more blocks to his apartment. He passed by a group of individuals in black leather jackets, loitering about their parked motorcycles. The bitter cold didn’t seem to bother them. They were drinking out of bottles in brown paper bags. It’s the antifreeze that’s making them insensitive to the cold. The hell with it, he thought. I need a drink right now! His favorite dive bar was just one block up. The sawdust on the floor gave the place a cozy feeling.

“Hello, Ben,” said Harry. “The usual?”

“Yeah, but skip the juice. Gotta get rid of this chill in my bones.”

“I know what you mean. The wind really goes right through you. I already have a houseful, and it isn’t even six o’clock.” He placed the shot of glass on the counter. “Three dollars.”

Benjamin gulped down the vodka and felt a burning sensation as it went down his throat, warming his chest, until it settled comfortably in his stomach. “Hey, Harry. Give me another.”

“Sure, Ben. There’s one thing about bar tending that beats every other business—there’s no economic depression. People come in when it’s cold to warm up, and people come in when it’s hot to cool down. When things go bad, people come in to forget; when things go well, they come in to celebrate. There’s always a reason for a second drink.” He returned the filled glass.

“You know, Harry. I wouldn’t be here if the landlord gave me a little heat.”

“Why don’t you move uptown?”

Benjamin shook his head left and right and rubbed his chin as if to comb a goatee he didn’t have, then he spoke to the newly filled glass. “The padded shelter where bars have carpets on the floor so that when people fall the shock is silently absorbed and no one gets bruised. “Here’s to uptown!” He finished his drink in one swallow.

“Don’t you have a girl uptown? You know . . . What’s her name?”

“Lisa. She likes her shelter.”

“Right. I’m not sure you can take it down here, Ben.” A fresh gust of air announced the arrival of new clients into the bar. “Look at them! The first of the neighborhood’s drunks. They’ll all be in here tonight . . . to get away from the cold. You better go home, Ben.”

“Sure, Harry. One more, then I’ll go.”

Benjamin was surprised to see there was still a bit of light outside. They days are getting longer, he thought. The winter was half over, and the wind was furious. He hurried inside his building and shut the fury out. The lock on the front door had broken long ago and now drifters found their way into the dark hall. There was one in particular who adopted the corridor as his home. Benjamin was never consistent in his feelings towards him. Sometimes he kicked him in the shin and told him to get off the premises. Other times he invited him inside to sleep on the couch, and occasionally gave him some change. Tonight, he felt generous. He looked in his wallet and saw that he had a five-dollar bill and some change in his pocket. He gave the bill to the drifter and turned the key in the two locks of his apartment.

He let the door slam behind him and secured the locks from the inside. The quiet of his place filled him with emptiness and made him vulnerable to the clamor of the day: Black . . . White . . .  Puerto Rican . . . Other . . . The questionnaire to be filled by the applicant echoed in his head. He removed the bottle of vodka from the kitchen cupboard. Took a swig. The noise of work bounced off the wall of his skull. He needed distraction. He’d invite the drifter in. Benjamin unlocked the door, but the man was gone. Just one more drink. Just to silence the voices. He poured vodka into a tall glass and added orange juice.

The telephone rang.

“Not yet. Not yet,” he said, removing an ice tray from the freezer.

Four rings, five.

“Stop that ringing!” He dropped two ice cubes into his glass.

Six rings, seven, stop.

“It’s about time you gave up.” He kicked off his shoes, took his tall glass and reclined on the sofa. With his free hand, he rubbed his forehead back and forth, as if to erase a memory that was thrusting to the surface.

**

Each day, for eight hours, a narrow counter separated Benjamin Plaskett and his coworkers from lines of bitter and clamorous unemployables in a room that was as big as a ballroom and dull as a barrack. “Ne-ext,” Benjamin called out into the fully occupied waiting room in his head.

“Black and White and Puerto Rican. Other.” He sang the echo of the questionnaire to the beat of the cha-cha. The drink didn’t erase the voices of the day but made them tolerable—almost pleasant. Benjamin found harmony in the rhythm of the questionnaire. He took a last sip from his glass. He danced in the kitchen, empty glass in hand. “Black. White. Puerto Rican. Other. Cha-cha-cha.”

The phone rang again. Benjamin looked at the instrument with annoyance. He emptied the ice tray into a bucket and refilled it with water. With both hands he transported the tray to the freezer, careful not to spill on the floor. On the sixth ring he picked up the phone.

“Hello.” Benjamin listened to the solicitous voice coming through the instrument. “I’m sorry, Mom. I thought we were having dinner tomorrow.” He gazed at the ceiling, then at his nearly empty glass. He rested the telephone cradle on his shoulder. Undistinguishable words rushed out from the tiny holes in the hard plastic. He was tempted to plug them up. Instead, he sipped on the melting ice in the glass until the voice came to a stop.

“Look, Mom. I’m really sorry I forgot about tonight. Maybe you can freeze it . . .  We could have the pot roast tomorrow . . . You’re playing Bingo? How about the day after tomorrow? . . . No, I won’t forget. Thanks for the call, but I’ve gotta hang up now . . . No, I’m not sick . . . No, Lisa isn’t here . . . Mom, really. I just forgot about tonight. Nothing more.”

Benjamin dialed Lisa’s number and let it ring and ring. He let his head fall against the armrest. “I wonder what she’s up to tonight.” The palm of his hand once again rubbed his forehead and stopped on his eyes as if to shield them from a light. But it was dark. The sun had set a while ago, and he had not turned on the light. He remained lolling on the sofa. The phone still ringing in his ear. From his head, a word, sometimes a sentence, gushed through his lips. “You’re not eligible . . .Ne-ext . . . Black . . .  White . . .. Puerto Rican . . . Other . . . I can’t help you. Go to line C.” And then softly, “Black . . . White . . .  Puerto Rican . . . Other . . .” The words were lost in the dark room. He hung up the phone. He turned on the light next to the couch and surprised a cockroach on the coffee table, next to his empty glass. The vermin wriggled off the table to blend in the safer background of the roach-colored floor. He removed the rubber band from his wrist, stretched it between his fingers and snapped it at the roach, stunning it. His boyhood skill at shooting birds with the sling shot, had found its purpose. He took pleasure in the vermin’s contortions and crushed it once more with his heel. The rubber band around his wrist had been neglected for too long and furrowed his skin. He rubbed that wrist with the other hand then put the rubber back.

His gurgling stomach reminded him that he should eat something; but the refrigerator was empty—it had been empty for several days. He knew this, still he opened and closed the refrigerator repeatedly. Then he remembered is plan to eat a Chinese dinner, but he’d given away most of his money. He could always have a sandwich on credit at the dive bar.

Falling snow paved the streets sparkling white. An invigorating, fresh scent displaced the daily smaze, and the city looked clean. It seduced him to take  the long way to the dive bar. The breathtaking scenery inveigled deep breaths. Bitter cold air shocked his lungs, and he breathed out a cloudy ribbon of breath. He buttoned up his coat and walked leisurely towards Fifth Avenue with the wind blowing in his face. Occasionally, he turned around and walked with his back against the wind. His footprints in the immaculate snow seemed sacrilegious, but they were quickly blown into the air and replaced by new snow. Snowflakes fluttered by the street light, tossed by the wind until they fell to the ground. Tomorrow they would turn into slush.

There were few people in dive bar, most of them regulars. Benjamin knew them by sight; a few by name learned during drinking bouts. Two of his drinking buddies hunched over a table, too drunk to drink any more. He ordered a sandwich and two shots of vodka before the server refused his request for a third drink. 

“You know I’m good for one more,” Benjamin said.

“I’m closing early tonight. The weather is keeping people home. Why don’t you go home, Ben?”

“Yeah, you’r’e right. Just one more for the road.”

“That will be seven-fifty.” Benjamin looked at him with a questioning stare. “Pay now. I’m locking up.” He looked at the guests at the tables.

“What about those guys?”

“All right. All right.” Put it on my tab. He walked towards the Harlem River with the wind on his back. The snow was accumulating rapidly on the streets and on the skeleton of trees.

“Black . . . White . . . Puerto Rican . . . Other. Cha-cha-cha.” He shouted to the wind and took an erratic, little jump, but the words had lost their music. He tried a little dance step and slipped. Convulsed with laughter, he shaped a snowball and aimed it at a red neon light. He missed. What did that sign say?” He barreled towards the light. “Beer on Tap.” Money, thought Benjamin. He searched is pockets and counted two dollars and sixty cents in change. That was good for one more drink.

The saloon was dark and smelled of stale liquor and sweat. Still, the place was better attended than the dive bar. The snow on his hair had begun to melt and trickled down his neck, inside his shirt.

He ordered a straight vodka and was accosted by a tramp. “Buy me a drink, Mister?”

Other tramps had begun to surround him. Their movements were slow and lifeless—wraithlike. Benjamin gulped down his drink and ran out.

The shock of cold air nauseated him. He stumbled along, grabbing lampposts, and vomited in the snow. It occurred to him that he might not make it home.  Why did I forget dinner with my mother? He would welcome some hot tea now. He imagined his mother wrapping a blanket around his legs. There was no sense going home to an empty apartment. More animated now, Benjamin headed north. His mother lived les than two miles away. He had walked that distance many times before.

The snow on his hair had begun to freeze and he couldn’t feel the tip of his fingers. He ran a little distance, then faintness overcame him. He was sweating feverishly and the sweat was turning into a body suit of ice. One more mile to go.” A light ahead. He headed that way. A bare light bulb over a wooden sign: Bowery Hotel. Benjaminn pushed the door open with his shoulder and entered a room lined with mattresses. Men covered by blankets slept soundly. He recognized the drifter from his building. He looked peaceful in his sleep.

A man behind a desk, blocked further entry. “We’re full,” he said.

“Just let me stay here a bit.”

“Two dollars.”

“Let me stay indoor for a while. Then I’ll go. I’m not feeling well.”

“Two dollars.”

Benjamin walked south until he realized that he was heading in the wrong direction, then backtracked. His body was numb. Familiar voices began to drone: Black . . .White . . . Puerto Rican ,. . . Other . . . He fell. Snowflakes fluttered about him and came to rest on his body.

The following morning no one noticed the white blanket protecting Benjamin from the wind.

2 Comments

    • It’s a mindset that leads one to accept defeat without the fight. It’s this mindset that got the character in a deadend job, where his work got no results. It’s the feeling that the cards are stacked and so, why play?

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