Many years ago, a friend of mine had a dream. She told me she dreamed she had gone to hell– but, in her words, “it wasn’t so bad.”
Hell looked like a bad neighborhood with tumbledown buildings, the streets overrun with trash, surrounded by a big fence. My friend quickly found herself a leader of all the damned souls in hell, so she began to organize. The reprobates picked up garbage, painted the walls and started a community garden. There was a lot of camaraderie down there, a lot to like. The only unnerving thing was the people who weren’t in hell, standing outside the fence and looking at them.
I have been thinking of that description lately.
I was downtown in Steubenville today, feeding the pantry. Stocking the Friendship Room’s Little Free Grocery cupboard has become my obsession. I am solitary at the best of times; during the pandemic, it’s the only way I have to feel kinship with anybody. I don’t have an extended family to talk to. I don’t have many friends except for those I chat with online. I don’t have my daily errands on the bus to gossip and chat with the strange people who used to ride the City Limits line all day to take advantage of the bus’s free wifi. What I have is a long social distancing hike or a short, unsafe, crowded bus ride downtown to the Friendship Room, to give somebody a meal.
The friend who came through town the other day had left me with more money than usual in the grocery budget, so Michael bought cans, and I brought them downtown.
The bus is on a different route now, to minimize the number of drivers who need to drive at once and the number of people who take it for unnecessary trips. I didn’t know many of the other passengers. I didn’t talk to them. I rode downtown to that hopeless neighborhood in the shadow of the prim traditional Latin Catholic church and the infamous high school known as Big Red.
About half of the houses on that block of Fourth Street have been restored and look beautiful. But if you walk off of Fourth Street, you quickly see the decay. What was once stately mansions for rich people or respectable foursquares for the middle class are cheap apartment buildings or derelicts crumbling to dust. The parking lots are noisy gravel. The alleys reek of garbage and stray cats. Black and orange signs on doors and windows say KEEP OUT KEEP OUT KEEP OUT.
A person in a sweatsuit, a formless blue-gray jacket and a respirator was leaning into the cupboard that the Friendship Room has bolted on their porch. Because I could barely see the person, I couldn’t tell anything about them until they spoke.
“Need help?” she asked brightly– a woman, a Steubenville native and not a rich or a young one to judge from her voice. Besides the fact that she was getting food from the cupboard, I could tell because the wealthier people in Steubenville usually have neutral Midwestern accents like mine even if they were born and raised here, and the poorer people have a harsh Steel Valley bray. Her accent was harsh, but her tone was not unfriendly.
“I just came to fill the pantry,” I said, washing my hands at the outdoor sink.
“I’ll wait for you,” she said, and sat on the steps.
There wasn’t a good place to set my cloth shopping bags, so I put them down in the big wooden planter they’d set outside– there were no flowers in it yet. The Friendship Room always tries to bring beauty to the neighborhood. They have a lovely Nativity outdoors at Christmas, and flowers all spring and summer.
We chatted as I unloaded the bags. The woman was grateful to be outside on a beautiful day. She’s been coming to the pantry twice a week since the COVID-19 crisis began. She always brings one thing to leave there for neighbors, and she takes a few things back to make meals out of. She takes advantage of the cooler next to the pantry, which is always filled with free bottles of water. She drinks a lot of water because she once had a bowel obstruction and she doesn’t want it to happen again.
“I had one of those too!” I cried in surprise. “A few years ago.”
“You too!” the lady said. “They had to stick a tube down my nose, pumping my stomach out to two plastic… things… on the back of my bed…”
“Oh that tube!” I said with a shudder. “Yes. It hurts every time you swallow. Oh, that was horrible.”
“They sent me to Pittsburgh to do it.”
“I was in Columbus. I usually wish I was back in the city, but I’m glad to be in a small town with this going on.” I gestured to the world around me– to the locked down states of Ohio and West Virginia, to the financial crisis, to my pink bandanna and her white respirator, to the invisible COVID-19 pathogens that might have been hovering in the air all around us just then. “We’re lucky to be here instead of someplace more urban. Franklin County has hundreds of cases.”
“It’s true. Wow, your brought a lot!”
“I’m so glad to help.” I piled in the last cans, and carefully added a loaf of banana bread wrapped in plastic on the top. I’d baked gluten-free quick breads yesterday out of the fresh eggs and pastured milk my friend brought me from her farmer’s market, and saved the most picturesque loaf for the pantry. It’s not the same as inviting friends to a party, but it’s nicer to eat bread knowing that your neighbors are eating it as well.
I never want to eat alone again.
I don’t want there to be such a thing as “alone.”
“That’s the one good thing about this crisis.” I stepped six feet away, to wash my hands again and let her have the pantry. “It reminds us that we’re all neighbors.”
“Oh, I agree!” said the lady.
A car pulled up to the curb. A young woman got out just as one of the Friendship Room volunteers came out of the house, carefully masked and gloved. She was holding stack of carefully folded throw blankets that looked like they had golden bird’s wings woven into them.
“Will you take some angel blankets?” She asked.
The volunteer said that they would. As he took them, I glimpsed a little more of the design– one of those classic, effeminate guardian angels in a long robe.
I went into the church next door to pray for a moment before heading home.
I don’t think my friend saw hell in her dream. I think she saw Earth: broken and damaged by so much sin, but an opportunity for so much grace.
I don’t think the people looking in on us from beyond the earth could be too bad, either.
I think they are guardian angels.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.
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