Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Iraq War Comes Home to Onion Field, Ontario

Today the son of a friend of mine is being sent to Iraq. My friend's son joined the U.S. military months ago, and this is the culmination.

Also, I once knew one of the Canadians who was taken hostage in Iraq. His name is Jim Loney, and he was a good guy. I hope that he and the other hostages are returned quickly and safely.

Christian agency blames U.S. for kidnappings


From my as-yet-unpublished novel -- an experience I had in New York City with Jim in the late 1980s when I belonged to a Christian youth group:

New York City, March 1988.

One afternoon, I found myself standing on the sidewalk of Times Square, with two alcoholic, drug-addicted teenagers—each a year older than I—wondering how the hell that came to be.

... Jim asked if I wanted to join him on a visit to “some radical Catholics” who ran a Catholic Worker House—a soup kitchen and neighborhood mission—on New York’s Lower East Side. Having spent the day with Gary and Reg, I needed a break from them, and from the cramped hotel room. I said sure. Around seven o’clock, we went out to the van, leaving Gary and Reg to play cards and watch TV in the room.

The ride to the Catholic Worker House was like a descent into the murkiest neighborhoods of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. From the van’s window, I watched with growing apprehension as the neighborhoods we passed grew increasingly grim, increasingly dingy and forbidding. I said nothing, though—the cornerstone of his beliefs was faith.

The Catholic Worker House stood in the most blighted, blown-out neighborhood I ever saw in my life. After Zak dropped us off, Jim and I inadvertently saw more of the neighborhood than we intended—it was only then that Jim told me he wasn’t sure of the address of the Catholic Worker House.

We stood on the sidewalk, looking up at the crumbling, weathered buildings before us, searching for a light, the flicker of a television, any sign of life. There was none. Few of the darkened doorways even had addresses. Finally, Jim and I walked down the block.

As he looked for the address we needed, I surveyed the neighborhood, and felt a sick-certain sense that the street was almost entirely abandoned: seeing crumbling staircases leading up to unlit doorways; garbage strewn in moldering, reeking heaps on the sidewalks, spilled across the potholed road; dented toppled-over trashcans; abandoned, stripped-down, burned-out automobiles parked partly on the road, partly on the sidewalk. The place stank of sewage and garbage and rot. Part of me wondered if the street even appeared on a map. Surrounded by the utter desolation, I thought of the squalor along the southern highways—all those tiny slanting shacks with their fields of busted refrigerators and stoves—as Zak and I drove to New Orleans the previous summer.

The wind picked up, and I turned up my jacket’s collar.

After fifteen minutes, which passed with the slowness of hours, we came to a doorway, above which was a nearly illegible sign: CATHOLIC WORKER HOUSE. We knocked on the door, and waited. No answer. We knocked again. And waited. An excruciating procession of seconds passed before we heard footsteps inside. A naked light bulb winked on above us. The footsteps inside stopped, and I figured that Jim and I were being scrutinized through the fisheye lens in the faded red door. Finally, the door opened and a tall, cadaverous man stood before us. He looked to be in his sixties, wore black-framed Buddy Holly glasses, and had gray hair hanging down to his shoulders.

“We’re closed for the night, boys,” he said. Although he spoke in a subdued, mellow voice, I was nonetheless startled—until that moment, I figured we were visiting people whom Jim knew; with whom he might have previously worked, or gone to school. This was not the case.

“We’re not looking for help,” Jim said, and introduced us. “We’re missionaries,” he said, “and wondered if we could talk to you about how you run a Catholic Worker House.”

“I’m Harvey, I run the place,” the man said, and stepped aside. “Come in if you like.”

The interior was bare and neat; larger than I would have guessed from outside. There was a grungy easy chair with a mismatched seat cushion in the sitting room, an old couch with a coffee can as one of its legs, and a stack of wooden chairs in the corner. Harvey led them through a large, paint-chipped doorway into the kitchen, which looked like an old restaurant galley. We sat at a lopsided kitchen table, on mismatched chairs.

“Will you have some tea?” Harvey said.

We said sure.

He shuffled to the far corner and ran the hot water tap in a large laundry tub. The water came in a torrent, and within seconds a cloud of steam wafted up. He filled a kettle, and from that he poured our tea. When he finally joined us, with his old, stained mug, Harvey and Jim spoke about the poverty in New York.

I sipped his tea, and looked around the room, through the large, paint-chipped doorway, and realized there were no windows looking onto the street. Just as well.

They talked for twenty minutes. Then Harvey rose from his chair. I feared he was going to walk us to the door, say goodnight, and leave us outside until Zak came.

When is Zak coming for us? I wondered, and realized he drove off before we discussed a time. Well, he won’t leave them out here all night, I thought.

“I’ll show you around,” Harvey said. “Not much to show, but you can have a look.”

The second floor housed two makeshift offices, with avalanches of paper overwhelming two slanting desks. We went up another set of stairs, to a third floor, which was a large, dark, unheated room. I was surprised to find people there, seated at a long foldout table, folding pamphlets. Harvey introduced them around. There was a couple who appeared about Harvey’s age, a tall, stocky girl who was about twenty, and a Puerto Rican priest in his thirties, who looked like a prize-fighter. They welcomed us in the same low-key manner as Harvey.

Jim and I sat down, and helped fold the pamphlets—Catholic Worker newsletters—working by the wan light coming through the windows from the street lamps outside. The Catholic Workers told them about their various missions in New York and abroad.

Around ten o’clock, I turned to Jim. “When’s Zak coming back?”

Jim looked at me, puzzled. “He’s not.”

I began to smile, thinking he was joking. Then froze. He was as serious as the night he and Zak asked me to go to Covenant House, posing as a runaway.

“Don’t worry,” Jim said. “We’ll take the subway back to the hotel.”

I blinked, as though flinching from a blow. “The subway?!”


The room around me seemed to tilt. “The hotel’s in New Jersey. Do you know how to get there?”

Jim thought for a moment. “No.”

The Puerto Rican priest overheard us. He rose from his chair, and took me over to a faded map of New York City hanging on the wall. He pointed to an area and said, “You ever hear of this place?”

He pointed to HARLEM.

I nodded.

“If you and your friend take the subway, you’ll go through Harlem. I don’t recommend you do that. It’s rough all the way, but Harlem isn’t the place for guys like you.”

I asked Jim to come over. The priest reiterated his warning. To which Jim replied, “We’ll be okay.”

“I hope so,” the priest said.

When Jim and I made our exit, the Catholic Workers wished us luck, and slammed the door. I heard bolt slide home. Then I zipped my jacket, turned up my collar. The wind had not abated. It was beginning to snow.

Walking through that decimated neighborhood, a helpless terror rose in my throat. I slid a hand in my pocket and confirmed a fear that had nagged me since hearing Zak wasn’t coming back for us—I only had a few coins with me; not even a dollar.

We passed an abandoned playground where four rimless backboards stood on a potholed basketball court. Through the fence, on the other side of the playground, I saw a man. He just stood there: a black figure under a lopsided streetlight, watching us.

It was three blocks to the subway, and the street was so dark and deserted we almost walked past the subway entrance. I looked down the stairs, at the dingy urine-colored tiled walls, and knew that every step would be an act of will. Halfway down the stairs, the stench of human waste hit us like a blow.

As we approached the token booth, I showed Jim the few coins I had. He pulled a five-dollar bill and bought our tokens.

Passing through the turnstiles, I glimpsed a transit cop off to the side, watching them with sullen disinterest. I didn’t figure he would be much help if someone robbed us—and wondered if he might not try it himself.

We went to the platform, and waited.

“It’s just like riding the bus,” Jim said. “We’ll have to change trains a few times.”


He shrugged. “We’ll ask for directions.”

I turned away, feeling his stomach sink. Our luck, hedge of protection, whatever, had run out. I was sure of it. There was no way we would get out of that subway alive. It was one thing to stumble into danger, but Jim may as well have led me onto the subway tracks, and started walking toward the growing circle of light at the other end of the tunnel. All I could think about were the hustlers, beggars, pushers, and freaks of Times Square, and I struggled to keep myself from imagining their subterranean counterparts.

And I could be sitting in the hotel room, watching TV, I thought. If I’d only said no.

Then I heard the far-off rumble of an approaching train. When it screeched into the station, we got on, and for the next two hours my thoughts and senses turned inward, readying for the moment we would be robbed, or killed.

I followed Jim without question. We changed trains several times, ran up and down flights of stairs in different stations, catching trains just as the doors were closing. I was not aware of passing through Harlem; it must have come and gone with the blur of place-names I saw in each station. We eventually came to a bus station on the New York-side of the George Washington Bridge.

There was some relief in seeing the bridge; our hotel wasn’t far from it. Just when I was beginning to believe we might survive that night, we were approached by a large man who looked like all the other street people I’d seen that week. I braced for him to ask for money; thinking, if it came down to it, Jim and I could probably take him. When the man smiled, it made no difference—I was terrified; suddenly closer to tears than I had been in years.

“You guys need help?” the man said.

Before I could utter a word, Jim said, “Which bus will take us across the bridge?”

“Most any,” the man said. I watched him. The smile on his face held. “Bus oughta be here in ten minutes.” Then he gave them a few bus numbers for which to watch.

“Thanks,” Jim said.

“No sweat.” The man walked away.

One of the buses he named arrived soon after.

Jim paid the bus fare used with the last of our money.

As we rode across the George Washington Bridge, I gazed at the light-spangled spectacle of Manhattan behind us. It looked vast and unapproachable, yet beautiful in the same dangerous way as spewing lava. Hemmed in by the night sky, and the dark body of the river, Manhattan looked like a constellation, and I marveled that not an hour before, Jim and I had been immersed in it.

The bus driver let us off at the foot of the bridge on the other side of the river. By then, my blood teemed with exhilaration, my head reeled with the sense of having dodged a bullet. Still, we had to find the hotel. There wasn’t even a quarter left between us to call Zak.

The snow continued, and the wind whipped around us. Soon, we began jogging. At one point, the sidewalk down which we ran came to an end. The road forked, veering into a darkened neighborhood, and dropping down to an empty expressway—the one we traversed every day heading to and from Manhattan. Without a word passing between us, Jim and I ran down the on-ramp. My enduring image of that night is the two of us jogging along the shoulder of that vacant thoroughfare, snow flying around us, wind screaming in our ears, the sky dark and indifferent.

We rounded a bend, and the hotel appeared in the distance. It didn’t seem real; part of me was still on the subway, sure I would never see another familiar thing again. We climbed over the concrete median, crossed two lanes of empty expressway, and ran up the access ramp.

As we jogged into the hotel’s parking lot, as we entered the building—where I nearly collapsed in its welcoming warmth—the night’s events suddenly accordioned in my mind. By the time we came to the elevator, I thought, Of course we made it back. What was I so worried about? I looked at Jim, and saw in his eyes a glimpse of realization—he knew we had dodged a bullet, too.

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