Ten beds stand waiting for their second (and hopefully final) treatment to banish the bedbugs. The floor is swept and the shelter residents’ belongings are bagged. The immigrant workers have had to move their weekly meeting to a different space to make way for the exterminators so now they find themselves surrounded by toddler toys while discussing the city’s ban on electric bicycles. They use the bikes for more efficient delivery of restaurant meals around the city and the recent crack-down impedes their ability to do this low-wage job and earn enough to feed their families here and across the border. Elmo the turtle watches the young Mexican men from his tank. He always seems to like company, although he may be a she.
I have learned that our city has passionate rescue groups for turtles and other creatures. When our sidewalk bridge was going up, the workers found a squirrel’s nest with three newborns and their dead mother. One of the guys took off his sweaty t-shirt, tenderly swaddled the baby squirrels and handed the orphans over to my care. I emptied out the reams of copy paper and put the t-shirt nest in a box from Staples. Within the hour, Gary, our office volunteer, discovered squirrel enthusiasts ready to drive three or four hours from upstate New York to get the squirrels and take them to some kind of squirrel sanctuary (isn’t all of upstate a squirrel sanctuary?). These same folks gave Gary the number of others in their network who might help. Who knew that squirrels have their own network of support? It turned out that there was a woman at a nearby vet’s office who nurses baby squirrels and releases them to a “safe place” because they may not be able to fend for themselves in the wilds of nearby Central Park. I wish the growing number of homeless children in our city had this many options. Or the young people in our shelter.
We adopted Elmo when he was left under the bed of a former resident. After his success with the squirrels, Gary got on the phone and within hours a woman appeared at our doorstep with special turtle equipment that she proceeded to set up. I didn’t tell her that Elmo did not look well and I doubted he would survive. I figured that he deserved the chance this fairy godmother of turtles was giving him. I allow the children at church to think that Elmo is named for a puppet on Sesame Street, but his real namesake is a gay bar in Chelsea whose owner was an early and frequent supporter of our shelter. Now Elmo has grown to twenty times his (or her) original size. His feeding schedule is taped to his tank and his food is hidden away from eager children who tend to overfeed. My intern Emily and I make sure that Elmo eats. He resides in the room where we have Wee Worship snack and post-church play, and occasional labor organizing meetings. And confirmation class later today. It used to be called “the choir room” because our choir practiced there, but things change.
Our social worker has tended to the bed bug detail and is in the church office interviewing a new resident (Since our volunteer is only there two days a week, the office is available). The homeless young woman across the desk will bring her bag of belongings tonight and be given the one bug-free bed that has become available. It’s a twelve-hour respite from the hate that recently broke the bones of another resident, a transgender woman assaulted on our not-so-welcoming NYC streets because she refused to give in to her attackers’ demand that she admit to being a man.
Our building is small and with the office occupied, the exterminator downstairs and the immigrant workers in with Elmo, the only space left for a group of local church and synagogue leaders to meet is the sanctuary. We set up as far away from the church entrance as possible because a contractor is installing new glass doors to allow for greater transparency. This means we sit where we eat, beside the altar, to discuss the next steps in our food justice campaign. It’s hard to hear when the drilling starts, but we carry on. At one point, we realize that our group and the laborers have an intersecting agenda and so we plan a joint conversation when the meetings conclude around the same time.
Our intern, Emily, goes to get the wipes she has purchased. Germy toddlers have been all over the toys and someone really needs to disinfect before Sunday. Emily saw the need, bought the wipes and is going to work. A Wee Worship mother did this a month ago, but now there is a new set of germs. We probably need a toy-cleaning sign-up sheet alongside the snack sign-up, but that won’t happen before this Sunday.
I just filled out Emily’s internship evaluation. It’s a new model being tested by her seminary that includes fifty-two categories for evaluation. There is no space for feeding turtles or sanitizing toys.