WE ARE HOPE’S FAMILY
In the beginning we called ourselves Hope’s Family just so we could get into the hospital to see her and to get her out of it too and so we could be seen as legitimate in taking care of her. But then the sound of the name began to ring in our ears like what Stashu calls the clarion bell of freedom, so we kept it and from December 2011 on that is what we have been known as, everyone in Building 22, including Premjit the Landlord’s son. We do not include, however, the Landlord. No. He is not part of Hope’s Family. He doesn’t like Hope one bit. He doesn’t even like Feder. In fact, the Landlord was the reason we pulled together and became Hope’s Family in the first place. So while we are aligned against him, in a sense we have the Landlord to thank for making us one.
CHAPTER ONE: OCTOBER 2011
Premjit opened the door to Building 22 and noted the smell before he noticed the cracked doorjamb. Burned paraffin. Too much of it. Which could only mean one thing, that the utilities had been turned off again in some of the tenants’ unit and they were burning candles for light. Lord only knew what they were doing to cook their food. Premjit hoped they were using Sterno and not portable gas stoves in the stuffy little apartments all of which lacked adequate ventilation at the best of times. He could only hope against hope. Just last winter they had lost a young man to carbon monoxide poisoning, and nearly lost the tenant in the apartment directly above him, when he tried to cook his boxed macaroni and cheese dinner on one of those treacherous stoves in his apartment. Not only that but after he passed out, he had nearly burned the building down but for the quick thinking of a neighbor who had smelled charring food, knocked on his door and when she had gotten no answer, quickly called the fire department.
This was an accident waiting to repeat itself. The writing was not just on the wall, it was on the staircase and on the walls and on the windows. You couldn’t cook with sterno. It took nearly an hour just to boil water for a cup of coffee, a single cup. But Sterno was too expensive to cook with even if they could use it. Something had to be done, and done pronto. All of Premjit’s tenants were on social security or disability, which meant a fixed income with little leeway to increase their payments to the Utility Company when there was a rate increase. This had been instituted a month before, for the second year in a row. Worse, the City had not been forthcoming this year with additional energy assistance. Oh, City officials claimed that private businesses and charities would step forward to help instead, that tenants needed only to look for help and they would easily find it elsewhere. But looking and finding help to pay for heat and lighting were too very different things.
Prem knew what the City did not. His tenants – well, they were not his, not really, yet he felt that they were truly in his charge, and were his concern in a way that his father did not – could not negotiate the tortuous ins and outs of getting private energy assistance. They were on disability for a reason after all, weren’t they? And for many of the tenants, disability entailed some measure of mental impairment in addition to a physical problem, if mental illness or intellectual impairment was not in fact the entirety of the problem.
Yes, Prem thought, Beatrice Bean – called Bay-a-tree-chay by those who had known her in New York City, but called Beanie by her real friends – Beanie, the spindly, towering former madam –turned-Cleaning-Coordinator, her thick poofed hair the color of old bones, even at 84 probably could help some of the others. But she was elderly and somewhat frail. She could not be expected to lead the entire Building 22 to private sector energy independence.
Then there was Stashu, Prem’s 70-something tenant. He was a resourceful survivor who would get heat and lights somehow if ever he lost them, which Prem doubted would happen. Stashu did not go without the basic necessities, having known deprivation in his youth that was almost literally unspeakable..
Building 22 had twelve Units and Prem estimated that as many as five could now be without utilities. Who knew how many would go “off grid” in the coming months? It was only October now, the first official month of “cold” weather according to City calculations, but temperatures still rose into the 70°s sometimes. What would the tenants do for heat in December when it sank below freezing in the darkest month of the year?
Premjit, though he was of Indian extraction, had never visited his father’s homeland, and had no close acquaintance with that extreme poverty. He had not been “hardened to the banalities of hardship” as his father liked to explain it. Far from it. Instead, as if in opposition to his father’s tough stance, Prem’s feelings had only grown more and more tender towards the tenants that the Landlord so oppressed. Which is why when his father refused to fix things like the doorjamb, which was more than merely cracked, he saw now, but broken clear through and held together only by the several coats of paint that disguised the imperfection, he felt not only impelled to repair things, but he also felt rage at The Way Things Are.
Prem loved his father, and he understood completely how the Landlord’s upbringing in India had affected him in such a way as to harden him against the very people he ought to have treated with compassion, seeing them as privileged compared to those begging on the streets in his native land. But Premjit was not his father’s son, not in the traditional sense of those words. And the United States for all her flaws, was his home, and the poverty of the tenants was what he was familiar with, and pained by. Whether relative or not, he cared if they went hungry or were cold or had to use candles to see in the dark.
The worst of the worst case scenarios, which hadn’t happened yet in Prem’s memory, but which his father perennially threatened them with, was Eviction for Non-Payment of Rent. Disability status all but guaranteed a government subsidy that made paying rent possible for these tenants. But if ever the subsidy were withdrawn, if the Government in it is infinite wisdom and kindness were ever to renege on its agreement t care minimally for its disabled population (whatever you thought if the policy of disabling so many people, so young) the tenants would be out on the streets.
Homeless. The word struck fear into any tenant’s heart. To a one this was their greatest source of terror and vicariously Premjit’s as well. So far, no one had been evicted since Prem had become aware even vaguely of Building 22 in his consciousness, as a young boy living in a large white-washed stucco house in the suburbs, five miles away. That, despite the Landlord’s threats, so few had ever been evicted was testimony to the stability of the disability payment and to a subsidy systems that all but guaranteed rents were paid and paid on time.
Even Hope and Feder, the most unstable of the disabled in Building 22, paid their rent more or less on time every month. In fact, Hope managed to pay even when she was in the mental hospital. If she had to, she made sure that Feder brought her checkbook to the nurses station and she wrote out her payment there, handing it to him to deliver to the Landlord well before the 10th of the month. Prem made a mental note to check on Hope and Feder, hoping that their apartments were not among those that had lost their heat and lighting. His two favorite tenants had enough to struggle with, without having to deal with these additional privations!
Having calculated the cost of fixing the door frame and preparing an under-the-door notice for all tenants in his head about not using portable gas stoves in Building 22, along with directions to neighborhood soup kitchens and inexpensive area restaurants where tenants who needed to could dine on the cheap until their heat and lighting situation was resolved. Prem made his way along the first floor hallway. Even as he walked, which was not that quickly or that quietly in his hard -soled shoes – he made noise because unlike his silent shoed father, gliding about the building late at night – he wanted Tenants to hear him and come out to join him, talk with him, share their problems, concerns, grievances. Or just to tell him anything they wanted to. He noted all the bulbs that had burned out or were dimming. He would replace them on his next walk-through.
Four floors with three units on each floor and a roof garden that Prem had put in a few years after taking over the Tenants care, Building 22 had always had an elevator, indeed it was supposed by law to have an elevator, being a building designated for the elderly and the disabled…Once upon a time, Premjit’s father had put his foot down on the elevator situation, when the inspectors’ insisted that not only could his perfectly respectable Schindler not be upgraded it had to be replaced by an Otis.
“Otis Schmotis” groused the Landlord. And he added some other choice words. But since he spoke in Hindi, Prem neither understood them nor could repeat them later on, though he understood the feeling tone behind them and “grokked” – understood instantly in that profound deep way—that the tenants not only would not be getting any state of the art “inferior Otis.” But neither would their beloved Schindler be getting repaired into serviceable employment again. Not if Pere Mukherjee had anything to say about it.
This hardness of his father’s heart shocked him into a new awareness. At the time, in 1989, Prem had been only 23 and not long out of college. He had had notions of applying to graduate school, maybe medical school, and becoming a professional, a doctor. But all those ideas had been as vague as dishes seen under the murky haze of dirty dishwater.
When the elevator situation in Building 22 swam into his consciouness, it was not lazily like a school of darting minnows on a sweet sunny summers day, but like a great white shark whose feeding grounds have been encroached upon: with ferocious gaping maw and sharp teeth, ready to swallow him whole.
He might have shied away, taken one look at Building 22 and the Tenants dire situations and said to himself: “I’m too young for this. It is not my fault. I didn’t ask to be put in the middle of this.” He could have turned his head and turned away, saying, “This isn’t a situation I am responsible for. I want nothing to do with it.” He was, after all, a very young man with a promising and full life ahead of him. He might have become a major player in a major profession. He might have gone far.
Luckily for Building 22 and its tenants Premjit did not see all this, or did not care. He saw only one thing: injustice and the fact that he could do something about it. It drove him to make a decision that day that changed, well, it changed only one small thing. Only a speck in the universe was really altered. But this speck was really the thing itself writ small, but he discovered it was the thing itself writ large too, like a fractal. Fractals! So much of nature as Premjit had read recently followed fractal geometries – sunflowers, nautilus shells, coastlines, mountain ranges, trees. Nature was all about the mathematics of roughness rather than algebra’s smooth perfections. With fractals, you needed only to change one input, one speck, and you changed everything. He was beginning to think this was true about people too.
That is only part of chapter one. I have many more pp written, but i am off to North Carolina now to visit my brother and write. so I will add more in later days, perhaps from later chapters. We will see.