Saturday, July 30, 2011

Fire Flowers

Japan is renowned the world over for it's fabulous fireworks displays. Even the Japanese word for fireworks, hanabi (literally "fire flower")  is a thing of beauty. This year the garden in the sky is thinner than usual.

Many summer festivals have either cancelled or shortened their fireworks shows this year in light of the plight of those impacted by the multiple disasters of March 11. They have a word for it, jishuku, a self-imposed barrier to limit oneself from overindulging in the face of the those who have lost so much. It  happens here at the worst of times. It occurred in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Kobe over a decade ago and it has been happening since Mother Nature delivered her tsunami-earthquake double punch this past spring. I don't know if it's a totally alien concept but it seems sooo Japanese. If one member of the group is hurting, the entire group feels the pain.

I  actually don't mind that the summer night canvas will be sans all those extra colors. Fireworks kind of scare me, they always have. The "fire" in the sky, the gut-wrenching booms, and the potential for danger everywhere from errant rockets to stampeding hordes of pedestrians.
 The best fireworks show I ever saw was one I couldn't actually see. It was 1983 and I had been volunteering my time at a soup kitchen and shelter for the homeless in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York. I just so happened to be there on the eve of the centennial anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. The sisters (as in nuns) living in the building next to the shelter had invited us all up to the roof for a spectacular view of the lights in the sky.

It was a magnificent display, or at least the twenty percent that I saw of it was. There was a huge building standing in the foreground that obstructed our view of the bridge and fireworks.
While we could only make out the periphery of the fire flowers blooming across the heavens, everybody was thrilled just the same. Most excited of all was a little girl among our company, who along with her mother and slightly older sister had recently found themselves in New York City without any lodging. After learning of their plight the sisters took them in and on this special night we were all celebrating the littlest one's fifth birthday with one of the most magnificent fireworks shows New York City had ever seen. 

Forgot to draw bridge suspension cables, please imagine them where they should be.

The remarkable thing was that it was all for her, at least that's what she believed and nobody said anything otherwise. It was maybe the most precarious yet most precious of times to be five years old, at least for this little flower in God's garden. After the show, we all headed back down to the shelter where thirty people had a roof over their heads for the night.

The first time I stepped foot in the shelter it was the dead cold of winter. I was about 19 years old and had signed on for a two-week hitch. I had hooked up with the chaplain of a college that was down the block from my house, who was going to the shelter for winter break to relieve at least one  long-term, full-time volunteer who was on the verge of burn-out.

I really didn't bring much to the table. I didn't have any kind of useful social work skills or anything like that but I could clean bathrooms, pitch in cooking and serving at the lunchtime soup kitchen (after thoroughly washing my hands), and play a mean game of checkers with the kids who would stop by and I mean brutally mean. 

One day the chaplain, Mike, and one of the sisters (I forget her name but she was French or French Canadian so I'll call her Frenchy)announced they were going out to pick up some donated foods and asked if I wouldn't mind holding down the fort alone for a few hours. They were concerned that I was still shaken after "the incident" that had occurred the previous night.

The guests were usually referred to the shelter by some social work agency or other. The place was designed for short term stays not beyond a few weeks and could house up to thirty people in semi-dormitory style, women and men in separate sleeping areas. It was basically a band-aid operation. The doors would open at 5:00  and close for the night just before lights out at 8:00. No one was aloud in after 8:00, without exception and that was the root of the aforementioned incident.

It was around 11:30 pm when the heavy metal doors, separating everyone nestled within from the ice cold snow covered streets outside, were suddenly peppered with rapid fire pounding followed by a demand to "open up the f#!%ing door." Mike slid open the half dollar-sized peep hole cap to try and get a look at who was on the other side of the reinforced steel barrier. As soon as he removed the cover, the glass cover was shattered by the incessant pounding and a noxious gas poured through the small portal to fill the interior.

I think it was some mixture of gin and tonic. It was obvious that whoever was on the other side had been drinking a lot, a lot which is probably what gave them the power to start hurling every garbage can on the street at the door. Once Mike slid closed the metal cap over the porthole, the force or forces on the other side broke through the protective cap with a terrifying ramming device, a human finger.

Frenchy to go out and have a good time, assuring them there was nothing to worry about. They said they would be back by 5:00 and on their way out gave me one set of final instructions to follow: "DON'T OPEN THE DOOR!" 

It was about 2:00 pm when Mike and Frenchy left and everything was going just fine until about 2:30. It was then that I heard the pounding on the steel door reverberate throughout the building and bounce off the corners of my mind where the goings on of the night before still lingered in some horrific memory. "Oh no. Oh no," I said. This can't be happening again.

I summoned every ounce of bravery inside my bones and walked to the door where I peered out the eye portal. There was no one or thing in sight. Just then as I was peering into the empty void, the door was bombarded by a steel wrecking ball, or so I thought. The impact was so forceful it nearly knocked me to the ground as I cringed with fear as the thought of the door popping out of its frame popped into my mind. Then came an eerie, almost unearthly, bellowing voice that groaned on as if the metal door hinges from which it emanated were chewing lit bits of gravel. I shuttered as the voice spake, "I HATE THIS PLACE!!!"

I instantly turned into a trembling bowl of instant Jello brand gelatin. My knees suddenly buckled and fell to the floor as I clasped my hands and prayed to heaven above for some divine intervention.

Then all of a sudden I heard what sounded like whimpering coming from beyond the steel door. Was it Satan trying to trick me I wondered. It didn't sound especially satanic so, after much internal deliberation, I decided to violate my orders and began sliding back the huge door bolts that  normally held us securely in the palm of safety's hand.

The minute I pulled back the metal seal I was struck by a blinding light from the heavens above and now saw why I couldn't see anything when I looked through the peephole just minutes (that felt like hours) before. It was a kid barely four feet tall and all of eight years old. The same kid I had beat at checkers just a few days before. When he finally shut off the water works, he asked me, "Have you seen my mother?"

I told him I hadn't but directed him to the sisters next door where from their lofty vantage it seemed as if they could make miracles happen for little kids.

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