[The following story, " oom in the Inn," was presented in various forms at Trinity Presbyterian Church on 19 December 2010. Incidentally, I have nothing against Newark, New Jersey. The extent of my first-hand knowledge of Newark comes from the little I have seen of it from the dirty windows of several Amtrak trains; what I have seen, however, provided just the right setting of gritty industrial/urban bleakness that I had in mind for the story. There is actually even a Foundry Street that passes under the Turnpike in Newark, though it was hard to tell from the Google Earth image whether there is really a vacant lot next to a Gulf Station across the street from a trucking company at that intersection.]
Across the street from where I used to work, in the guard shack at C.W. Trucking on Foundry Street, in Newark, New Jersey, there’s a vacant lot. (Yeah, big surprise, right? A vacant lot in Newark!) It’s just east of the Turnpike, wedged between the overpass and a Gulf station, and all covered over with weeds. There’s old tires and random junk, bags of trash that those lazy bums at the Gulf station should have found some other way to get rid of. The only structure of any kind is what’s left of some old shed—it looks like it was set on fire at some point. (Another big surprise.) The front wall is completely missing, as well as most of one of the side walls. The other walls are bowed outward, supporting what’s left of the roof; charred timbers and beams just about completely rotted through—as many of them pointing down at the ground as holding up the roof.
You wouldn’t want to seek shelter in that old shed, no matter how bad off you might be, but one night I looked up and there they were: A young couple—really young; too young—the girl looked fourteen, if that. I mean, it was cold and raining that night so I wasn’t going to go and see up close. The guy, her boyfriend, looked older, or anyhow he had a beard. They were dressed weird; their clothes looked like they used to be bright colors but faded now. It looked like they might have been wearing bathrobes, but it was sure not bathrobe weather.
Anyhow, they were kneeling over some kind of box or bin; actually it looked like an animal’s food trough—seriously. There aren’t any farms anywhere near Foundry Street in Newark that I know of, but that’s what it looked like. And they were staring down at something in the box—you’d have thought they’d discovered gold in it or something. Their eyes were dark, and they were locked tight on whatever it was they were looking at. Their faces were dirty, but they had, I don’t know, a glow that the grime couldn’t hide.
And they weren’t alone, these young kids and their treasure box; they’d drawn a crowd that was as strange and out of place as the two of them: two more bearded guys in bathrobes and carrying big sticks, like they were standing guard. And then off to the other side were three even-stranger-looking cats. These three were done up in fancy cloaks and robes, wearing crowns—I swear, they were crowns—and carrying funny-shaped packages. They looked uncomfortable—that’s the best way to describe it—and maybe a bit confused, too.
All I could think was that these people were doing some kind of new-age religious ceremony or something. But it was a heck of a cold miserable night to be out in a muddy wasteland under the Turnpike, I’ll tell you that.
Anyhow, I’ll be honest—it freaked me out a little bit. I was sitting there in the guard shack, trying to focus my eyes through the dark and the rain, but they wouldn’t focus. It’s like my eyes knew that what they were seeing didn’t make any sense. And then—well, just then I got busy with trucks coming in and all, and when my shift was over I’d about had enough. I went home and went to bed.
* * *
The next night I got to work a little early. I parked the car and started walking across the lot to the guard shack. I’d forgotten about the crazy people across the street, and even if I hadn’t I sure wouldn’t have expected they’d still be there.
But they were.
Most of them, anyhow.
The rain had stopped, and since I was a little bit early for my shift, I walked over to have a closer look. And I have to tell you: once I got close to them I felt pretty stupid. Of course they weren’t real live people—they were statues, cheap plastic statues like people put in their yards and such. Most of them were in pretty bad shape: cracked down their sides, some with holes in them. One of the bearded guys with the sticks, he was missing an arm. They used to have light bulbs in them, but none of them did now, and anyhow there was no place to plug them in. I looked in the box, the animal trough—but there was nothing in it, so I don’t know what the girl and the boy were staring at. And I guessed I couldn’t very well ask them, either.
Anyhow, you remember I said that most of them, the statues, were still there, but three of them were gone: the three crazy-looking ones with crowns. And for a second I felt like a police detective with two mysteries to solve, both of them equally baffling. I mean, what’s weirder: That somebody would go to the trouble to come out to this god-forsaken lot to set up these broken-down statues for no apparent reason? Or that somebody else would come along and steal three of them?
* * *
So the next night: would you believe it? The guards were gone, the bearded guys with sticks. I looked over at the statues of the young girl and her boyfriend, there in the weeds and the junk, still gazing down at their treasure box, and I thought to myself, “Those guards weren’t much good at their jobs, were they?”
And for a minute my thoughts got caught in my throat. For a minute I forgot that they were just a couple of beat-up plastic statues. I had this urge to run across the street and rescue those two kids, bring them back to the guard shack where they’d be warm and safe.
But just then a truck pulled in, and I had to do my job. I never did make it across the street.
* * *
The next night—Friday, finally—the boy and the girl? You guessed it: they were gone, too. That empty box, the one that looked like an animal’s trough, was all that was left. And when my shift was over, I was really ready for the weekend. I’m always tired by the end of the week, but, man, I was feeling it like nobody’s business that night.
Which made it doubly worse when I had a blowout on the way home.
And triply worse when I remembered I’d loaned out my jack a couple months ago and couldn’t change the tire.
So I was cold, I was tired, and I was stranded in a god-forsaken corner of Newark, New Jersey, at one o’clock on a Saturday morning. And I mean the wind was howling through those black streets. What else could I do? I started walking.
After a few blocks, thinking I was going to freeze to death, I saw signs of life: a storefront, the only one around without the security blinds pulled down. Light was spilling out into the street under a neon sign that said, “ oom in the Inn.” I guessed it was a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen—whatever it was I was sure glad to see it.
As I got closer I could see that the “R” was burned out. “Room in the Inn,” I thought to myself. “Okay, whatever.” An ambulance and a police cruiser were parked out front, but it sounded like a party going on inside.
And was it ever a party! Like no party I ever saw before, but that’s what it was. A party that every dirty, smelly, broken-down street refugee in northern New Jersey must’ve been invited to. The heat was blasting out through a couple of those great big square blowers hanging from the ceiling, and the place smelled like a barn full of wet dogs. People laughing, eating, drinking hot coffee everywhere I looked. A beat-up Christmas tree had been unplugged and stashed in the corner to make more room for the crowd.
As I got my bearings and looked around, I could see that most people’s attention was aimed at the far end of the room, where a group of people stood with their backs to me. Two gangbangers—I could tell from the tattoos on one of their necks—wearing black hoods pulled up over their heads stood leaning against the wall. They weren’t saying anything, but they kept looking down at whatever it was the rest of the crowd was focused on. Then I noticed two paramedics talking with people and packing up their equipment. I guessed whatever the emergency was was over.
Then I saw a cop pushing his way through the crowd. He was laughing, which I didn’t think I’d ever seen before, and trying to carry four cups of coffee at once. Finally he made it to where he was going; he handed two cups to the paramedics. And then he handed the other two cups to the gangbangers.
I really never saw nothing like that before.
* * *
I was starting to feel a little woozy when another cup of coffee appeared—in my hand.
A large woman with long black braids and the biggest teeth I ever saw put the coffee cup in my hand and her arm around my shoulder. She could tell I had no idea what was going on, and her laugh charged up the whole room.
“Come with me,” she said. “Come see the baby!”
Before I could think to say anything, I was standing at the end of the room, in the middle of the crowd, holding a newborn baby. And I mean she was brand-new-born: still had smudges of dried blood around the edges of her face and gunk in her hair, but she was wrapped up tight in a blanket with a little beanie hat on top of her head.
I looked down and saw her parents, seated against the wall. Two young kids, way too young, looking up at me with grins in their eyes. I handed the little girl back to her mama, and I tried to say, “Congratulations,” but I might have just grunted.
“Isn’t she lovely!” my laughing friend said. She moved us out of the way so others could see the baby. On the way to a couple of plastic seats in the corner, we brushed against one of the gangbangers, spilling a little of his coffee. I winced, but he didn’t seem to notice. We sat down, and I took a few deep breaths.
As the spinning in my head slowed down, my laughing friend explained what had happened there that night:
How the girl and the boy had come from down south, running away from a bad family situation, she pregnant and he scared to death and neither of them with a job or more money than they had in their pockets—and most of that gone for bus tickets and fast food.
How they’d gotten off the bus in Newark, trying to find this cousin the boy thought he had around here somewhere.
How they got lost in the city about the time she went into labor.
How she collapsed in the street and would have probably just frozen to death, and her baby too, if Kevin and Anthony—gangbangers have names, I learned—if they hadn’t come around the corner just then and found them huddled there.
How Kevin and Anthony brought them here and called 9-1-1.
“They’ve got a hard road ahead of them,” my friend said, “and that poor little girl—if she only knew the kind of world she was being born into.” My friend shook her head.
I asked her, feeling I knew the answer already, “Does anybody know if this ‘cousin’ really exists? Do they have anyplace to go after tonight?”
By this time my hands and feet had thawed out and my mind had cleared. They sure did have a hard road ahead of them, that little baby the hardest of all. But—and I’m not much for fancy words—but when she was born into this world, in downtown Newark of all the god-awful places to be born—
Well, love was born into this world, too—even in Newark, even in that barn-smelling homeless shelter. And even a tough old coot like me could feel it.
* * *
That was four years ago, that night of the flat tire. Every year about this time I start to think about those beat-up plastic statues that showed up out of nowhere in that weedy lot across from C.W. Trucking. I think about that young plastic couple—too young—in their faded bathrobes, looking down into their treasure box that looked like an animal’s food trough. I think about how for a second I forgot they were statues, how I wanted to run across the street and rescue them from the cold and the wet.
Then I look at that little baby, and—well, she’s not a baby anymore: four years old today, as a matter of fact. She can walk and talk and sing and dance. Prettier now than the night she was born, and smart—smart as a whip. She can do all sorts of things, but my favorite thing she does is this: she calls me “Cousin.”
All three of them do.
© 2010, Dwight Christenbury